The release of a video showing Bridgeton police fatally shooting an Upper Deerfield Township man has allowed the public to see firsthand the Dec. 30 traffic stop that turned deadly.
It also has raised questions about how shootings by police are investigated, who should be the lead agency and what information should be released to the public.
A public records request made to Bridgeton seeking the video from a police dashboard camera that captured the killing of Jerame C. Reid was released recently after several media organizations, including The Press of Atlantic City, requested it.
Bridgeton police said the video was released “to comply with federal and state laws pertaining to public records.”
A factor in the release was a ruling last year by Ocean County Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso that dashboard camera video of a traffic stop was not protected under the “ongoing investigation exception.”
But despite that ruling, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain maintains the public isn’t entitled to footage a Pleasantville police dashboard camera caught of a car chase that began in Pleasantville and ended in a fatal shoot-out in Atlantic City’s Tanger Outlets The Walk
The Press of Atlantic City cited the Grasso ruling when it requested video from the March 27 incident that includes the killing of Antoquan Watson, 27
“It constitutes a criminal investigatory record exempt from public inspection,” wrote Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen Bond, in denying the request.
She said the recent decision does not change the office’s position in this case.
“This office regards it as criminal investigatory records, not subject to release under the Open Public Records Act,” according to a statement from the Prosecutor’s Office. “While an investigation is pending, we choose not to release it, and hold that we do not have a legal obligation to do so.”
McClain’s decision — and his understanding of the judge’s ruling — hasn’t been challenged in court, so it’s unclear if he could be forced to comply with a request. The Atlantic County office has been known for releasing as little information as possible in all its investigations.
The state Attorney General’s Office, when asked for specifics on the proper release of such videos, referred to the office’s guidelines for these investigations, which don’t touch on what can be released.
John Paff, a public records advocate who made the successful argument in the Ocean County case, said he believes the videos should be made public to protect both officers and the public.
“It’s an objective witness,” he said. “A third benefit is not just to protect the police and the person involved, but the general public has a right to know how police are interacting with citizens.”
There have to be some “reasonable parameters” on what prosecutors release and don’t release to the public, said civil rights attorney Eugene Melody, who is representing Watson’s father in making sure the family gets information about the ongoing investigation.
A former prosecutor, he said there would be instances where the video shouldn’t be released immediately, such as prosecutors not wanting to sway witnesses who should be giving information based upon what they saw in real time and not a video they may have seen on television or the Internet.
In Ocean County, the decision to release such video would be made case-by-case, Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Al Della Fave said.
“Each and every case is different,” he said. “We would have to look at it closely.”
Some other states don’t allow for the release of videos while investigations are ongoing.
Dashboard camera footage is not made available under the Right to Know Law in Pennsylvania, where public records are more open than in New Jersey.
The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office did not return calls on police shootings.
Naming the officers involved in a shooting also differs depending on where the incident occurred. Bridgeton almost immediately named Officers Braheme Days and Roger Worley as the two who shot Reid.
The Cumberland County’s Prosecutor’s Office would not comment on that decision.
In Atlantic County, none of the 14 officers from Atlantic City and Pleasantville involved in four fatal shootings since Derreck Mack was killed Dec. 17, 2012, has been named by the office. The Atlantic City officer in the Mack shooting and three Pleasantville officers who killed a knife-wielding Alexis Yamil Perez on April 22, 2013, have been cleared by grand juries. Watson’s case and the fatal shooting of Shawn Brown last Sept. 8 are awaiting presentation to the grand jury.
There should be a set time line on how long it should take to investigate these cases, Melody said.
McClain said he does not name the officers, because they are a piece of the investigation, and would release their names only if they were indicted. He puts all shootings by police before a grand jury. McClain said he doesn’t release the names of members of the public involved in those shootings, or the names of people who are involved in other shootings, unless they are formally charged with a crime.
But names of officers should be public record, said Melody, pointed out that even a minor traffic stop generates a report with the charging officer’s name on it.
“Unless there’s a really good reason to protect those reports, that should be public record,” he said.
In New Jersey, prosecutors can decide on their own that a shooting is justified and not put it before a grand jury.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato released the name of an officer involved in a shooting last year in which no one was injured. The release came after the prosecutor’s investigation determined the officer was justified, Della Fave said. But the name of an officer who shot a suspect would likely not be released before a determination, he said.
Shootings involving municipal police departments usually are investigated by that county’s prosecutor. Shootings involving officers from county or state law-enforcement agencies would be investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team.
In the Bridgeton case, calls have been made to have the state take over the investigation. There are concerns about conflicts, including that Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae knows Days, one of the officers involved. She has removed herself from the case, but protests continue.
In such shootings, the Attorney General’s Office is notified. It is also subject to review by the Division of Criminal Justice.
“The Bridgeton video has caused a lot of controversy,” Paff said. “Sometimes controversy is a good thing. It’s better than just secrecy.”
There were 30 shootings by police in New Jersey last year, according to the Regional Operations Intelligence Center, down from 47 the year before.
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