South Orange police dashcam video of a traffic stop involving Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad was properly released to the public, according to South Orange Village Trustee Howard Levison.
As seen in the video, during a traffic stop for speeding on April 27, Lawson-Muhammad identifies herself to a police officer as a member of the Board of Education, mentions South Orange Village President Sheena Collum by first name, and refers to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead.” Lawson-Muhammad has apologized for her behavior and has stated her intention to remain on the Board of Education despite calls from some for her resignation.
In an interview last week, Levison again asserted that such video is public and can be accessed either through OPRA [Open Public Records Act] requests or common law requests.
Levison heads the South Orange governing body’s Public Safety Committee and is the Trustee liaison with the police department.
Levison said that the Township of South Orange had looked into the allegation that the video had been improperly distributed or “leaked.” He said that the video had been properly distributed and he found no evidence of a leak. However, there had been a clerical error: One member of the media who had requested the video via OPRA did receive it on May 15 directly from the Police Department in answer to the OPRA. Levison said that the video should have gone back through the clerk’s office before distribution. For this reason, the clerk dated the reply to the OPRA as May 17 — after the OPRA had been answered on May 15.
Levison said that he believed that that file was the source ultimately distributed to other media through Black Parents Workshop leader Walter Fields and others.
Levison questioned Walter Fields’ assertion that he received the video in a drive in an unmarked package on May 14 and asked if anyone had seen the drive. “There is an allegation but no evidence of what or when he received it,” said Levison, saying there is no evidence to show if Fields’ video is from a “stick” or other source. Fields reported that he “received an anonymous text on Sunday evening [May 13] … alerting me to the incident.”
When asked to explain who has access to police video, Levison responded, “There are four people who have access to our video capture system.” Levison explained that when a police vehicle comes into the police station, the video is transmitted via wifi to a server in police station. “So it’s uploaded. It’s a process that it comes off the car, goes to the server, then it’s moved to a permanent storage location on that server. It is available to the supervisor as well as the officer for review. The supervisor ultimately signs off.”
Levison said that in the case of “a questionable stop,” the supervisor can mark the video “so that it doesn’t get archived; it’s active.”
“There is a log of everything that occurs on that system,” said Levison, so that the Township can identify when video is “viewed or moved or marked to hold or a copy is made of it.”
When asked if he had reviewed the log of the Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad video, Levison said, “That’s what I did. And I saw every action. An action occurred; I can match it against the OPRA request.”
The four people with access to the South Orange Police Department video are Chief Kyle Kroll, Captain Ed Heckel, Det. Lt. Joseph Levanda (internal affairs) and Sgt. Adrian Acevedo (community affairs).
A flash drive containing the video was also sent on May 8 to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, who has been under fire from Board of Ed members Johanna Wright and Tony Mazzocchi for not sharing knowledge of the video with them. Baker has stated that she was acting on advice of counsel. Fields, on behalf of Black Parents Workshop, has filed complaints with the NJ Dept. of Education Ethics Commission against Lawson-Muhammad and Baker.
The name of the South Orange Police video system is WatchGuard.
Levison said that audio/video are recorded together on the system, not separately. He explained that the officer doesn’t selectively turn on the camera with the WatchGuard video system. “When he turns on the siren/lights, the video turns on.”
Levison said that video could be downloaded to provide to prosecutors or attorneys as well. In response to OPRA requests, the Township uses the New Jersey Attorney General guidelines. “This is open information,” said Levison, reporting that there are “some exceptions with shootings.”
The system was implemented this year, said Levison, who added that that process was labor and cost intensive. “We spent a year investigating how we should go about implementing this.”
Levison noted that guidelines are different on the release of bodycams.
“Dashcam is viewing an event that anybody else can be viewing. There could be bystanders taking pictures at the same time. But bodyworn [cameras] could be used, say, in a domestic dispute situation.”
When asked about frustration expressed by some community members that it took nearly a year for the release video of Maplewood police kicking and punching a handcuffed teen, but the video of this traffic stop was made immediately available, Levison responded, “That’s Maplewood. There was an investigation too.” Response to Village Green’s OPRA requests for the Maplewood police video were delayed due to internal investigations and County investigations, according to Maplewood counsel.
“We are not Maplewood,” Levison reiterated later in our interview. “We don’t have those problems. … That cop [South Orange PO Shaun Horst], it was outstanding. That’s the way our police officers are trained. And Kyle [Chief Kroll] enforces that. That is the protocol in the department.”
Besides using OPRA, Levison said that dashcam video is easily available to the public through common law. “I could walk into the station and say I have general interest,” said Levison, “Under common law I can walk in and get it, without going through OPRA or putting in a request.” Levison said that this practice has come about with recent high-profile police shootings and resulting public interest and recent court cases. He noted, nonetheless, that “it has to be logged in the audit trail that a copy was made.”
Regarding why he became aware of the video and why he took it to the Board of Trustees for review, Levison had previously replied to Village Green:
“As Chair of the Public Safety Committee I became aware of a troubling incident that occurred during the issuance of a ticket on a traffic stop. That incident was video recorded, as is the case on all such stops. I requested a review of the video recording to better understand that incident, and based upon what I observed, I concluded that it was
Levison continued, “I came to that conclusion as the incident involved members of two governing bodies, the BOT and the BOE. In the case of the BOT the incident might give the very false impression that the Village President might intercede in cases involving traffic violations. For this and other obvious reasons the BOT unanimously agreed to send the BOE President a letter and a copy of the video for their information.”
Village President Sheena Collum reported that this is a a measure she did not support and expressed her thoughts on the traffic stop incident in a letter to the public on May 17.
In our followup interview, Levison said that he and the Trustees have not yet seen “any formal response from the BOE to the BOT.” Levison noted that he is also the BOT liaison to the BOE and serves on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate.
Levison added, “And I’ve heard from other BOE members their surprise that they found out about it [the traffic stop] through the the public.”