A New Jersey appeals court on Monday ruled that police use-of-force reports — generated any time a police offer uses force against a citizen — are public records and cannot be withheld as criminal investigatory records.
Attorneys for West Milford, a township in northern New Jersey, appealed a state trial court’s ruling that the records should be released, arguing that it did not have to hand over the use-of-force reports to local residents and open-records activist Martin O’Shea because the documents were records of ongoing investigations and therefore exempt. Furthermore, the township argued that the use-of-force policy was formulated by the state attorney general and not written into law.
The appeals court disagreed with the township, ruling that the attorney general requires the reports each time force is used. The records are also not created for the purpose of a particular investigation, so whether the reports would ever be used in an investigation is purely speculative, the court held.
The township maintained that releasing the documents would have a chilling effect on how candid officers might be in creating their use-of-force reports. But O’Shea and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, argued that transparency would promote increased police accountability and allow the public to decide whether law enforcement’s use of force was excessive.
"The public has a right to know when police violence is justified and when it’s used recklessly," said Bobby Conner, a staff attorney on the ACLU’s open governance project, to NewJerseyNewsroom.com. "Replacing secrecy with sunshine allows the public to truly make progress in ensuring the government follows its own laws."