The Assembly Homeland Security Committee unanimously advanced a bill allowing police officers to review footage from body-worn cameras before drafting initial reports after more than an hour of testimony from activists who warned the bill could lend authorities an unfair advantage at trial.
Existing law allows police officers to review body camera footage only after drafting their initial reports. The bill would reverse that, allowing officers to view footage from their cameras before issuing any reports.
The bill’s supporters argued the practice would allow officers to draft more accurate reports, especially when they filed such reports hours or days after a given incident.
“We want the best incident report that can possibly be written. Memory is a volatile resource. Video is not,” said New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Colligan. “It is a concrete testimony of what happened at a scene.”
But the bill’s opponents argued that relying on body camera footage could lead to myopia. The legislation only allows an officer to review footage recorded by their own body camera.
Jennifer Sellitti, director of training and communications at the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, said viewing video would contaminate memory and impact police testimony, warning witness reports would be affected as well.
“Why have the officer testify at all?” she said. “Why not roll tape? Just show the video tape. It’s because witness testimony is about more than fact. IT’s about the ability to perceive, state of mind, memory, the ability to recall. These are all things that are enshrined in our case law and procedural law.”
She also questioned why, if accuracy was the goal, the bill limited officers to reviewing their own recordings, adding concerns about fairness given the same footage would be initially unavailable to witnesses and the defendants.
The bill was not posted online at the time of the hearing. Its Senate counterpart was introduced late last week but has yet to advance through committee, though the Assembly’s version included amendments not introduced in the upper chamber.
One of those would create a carveout blocking officers from reviewing body camera footage for incidents involving police use of force. Sellitti said the provision belied the bill’s intent.
“I’m really baffled by why there’s a carveout for use of force and discharge of a weapon, because that in of itself is a recognition that there is something wrong with viewing the video tape before writing, that you’re willing to exempt those cases,” she said. “I don’t think we should have to have people shot or almost shot to warrant fairness in police policy.”
Colligan and the measure’s other supporters, a group that included Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Newark), sought to portray the bill as one aiming to prevent minor infractions that would not ultimately impact a case.
They also charged the advocates’ position was inconsistent given widespread calls for release of body camera footage related to police shootings.
“It’s interesting that these same advocates of keeping an officer of reviewing his own video often immediately want to see a shooting scene,” Colligan said. “They are screaming at the Attorney General’s office for not releasing a video quickly, but they’re not going to let the officer’s who’s actually involved in the traumatic event look at it.”