Opinion Police and Fire

OPINION: Maplewood Should Release Police Video, Audio Recordings of July 5 Incident

From Walter Fields and the Black Parents Workshop:

The decision by the Maplewood Township Council to hire a firm to investigate the incident involving the township police and Black youth after the Independence Day fireworks display on July 5 2016 is a glass half empty. The township’s refusal to release the police audio transmissions and videotapes of the incident is a betrayal of the public’s trust and further erodes confidence in the local police department.

For over a year we have waited for the truth to be revealed concerning the escorting of Black children out of town at the conclusion of the fireworks display. While the Essex County Prosecutor chose not to bring any criminal charges against the officers involved, that decision does not absolve the officers of wrongdoing. The township’s decision to hire a firm to investigate the incident suggests there is sufficient suspicion that police acted inappropriately. This is not, however, a criminal probe and there is no justification to not releasing the audio and video records of that evening. Failing to do so is a slap in the face of our young people, and their parents, who have waited for over a year for this matter to be resolved. The lack of transparency on the part of the township is appalling and undermines building community-police relations at a time when there is such widespread mistrust of law enforcement in the African-American community.

In other active cases across the country, including those involving incidents in which police used deadly force against civilians, police departments have voluntarily released dash cam and body camera video. Why? These departments did not want to appear to obstruct the truth and understood the important of full disclosure in gaining the public’s trust.

In the last three months, police departments across the country have taken steps to demonstrate full transparency in some very difficult and controversial cases. In Seattle, the police department released video connected to the shooting of a pregnant woman by two officers. The Tulsa Oklahoma police released surveillance video of the police shooting of a man who had mental health problems. The San Francisco Police Department released body cam and video surveillance footage in a town hall meeting of the police shooting of a man in a Subway sandwich shop. The Fresno Police Department released body cam footage of a police shooting of an unarmed teenager. In every one of these cases the incidents were still under investigation when the video footage was released. No matter the public sentiment in these incidents, these police departments have attempted to demonstrate to the public that it will let the evidence be seen, no matter what it shows.

We have no such goodwill in Maplewood. Why should our youth or those of us who are adults have any faith that our police department is working to protect and serve? When there is no effort, not a shred of effort to address the concerns of the community, we question just who these public servants are serving.

A local news organization, The Village Green, and a teacher at Columbia High School have both filed Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for the audio and video records. The Black Parents Workshop is prepared to make an OPRA request this week. It is unconscionable that the township is operating with such secrecy in regard to this incident.

The township is creating unnecessary tensions by its refusal to be transparent. It would be in the best interest of all parties if the audio transmissions and videotape were released. The non-criminal investigation will proceed but the refusal to be transparent will further erode trust and confidence in the Maplewood Police Department and Township Council, and create a difficult to repair fissure in the aftermath of this ordeal.

We will join with students, parents and other concerned citizens on Monday July 3 at 4:30 pm at the Maplewood Police Department headquarters to continue our call for transparency and truth, and also oppose NJ Assembly Bill A1114 that holds children responsible for the behavior of law enforcement officers. A1114 is bad public policy and shifts the burden of responsibility away from trained police who we are paying to enforce the law in a fair and unbiased manner.

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