The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would bar the release of personal information belonging to victims of and witnesses to violent crimes under the Open Public Records Act over the concerns of transparency advocates who worried the provision would allow police to block the release of documents related to police misconduct.
The bill cleared the committee in a 6-1 vote. Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) was the only member to vote against the bill, though several others voted to release the bill on the condition that it be amended before reaching the Assembly floor.
Advocates feared the bill would allow police officers engaged in use of force incidents to claim victimhood and shield their names from disclosure under OPRA.
Officers in other states with similarly worded provisions have used them in such a way, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Policy Director Sarah Fajardo said, further arguing existing provisions of OPRA could block the release of victims’ information.
“It could open the door to shield law enforcement from the accountability that has been upheld in New Jersey courts,” she said. “Although the intention to protect victims is honorable and we greatly, greatly appreciate the sponsor’s intention, OPRA and other statutes already on the books in New Jersey do provide protections for victims.”
Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken) said she believed the bill’s main intent was to block the disclosure of witnesses’ information and believed Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City), the bill’s prime sponsor, would be willing to amend it to address advocates’ concerns.
Provisions of OPRA require the release of arresting officers, though advocates, including prominent OPRA attorney CJ Griffin and Lauren James-Weir, who represented the New Jersey Press Association, feared the new bill could override that requirement.
Others warned it was a step in the wrong direction. Jennifer Sellitti, who is director of training and communications at the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, warned the measure could thwart “even the minor steps toward transparency that have been taken by our attorney general.”
“This bill would give officers the ability to remain anonymous so that anybody in the future who is confronting officer Jones in a case would have no way of knowing about the prior misconduct because all an officer would have to do is claim that they were a victim and their identity would forever be withheld,” she said, referring to an anonymized police officer alleged to have assaulted a teen.
James-Weir also warned the bill was overbroad and would require records custodians to learn whether a given individual had ever witnessed or fallen victim to a violent crime in any jurisdiction. The bill defines violent crime as “a crime involving force or the threat of force.”