Last week the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled that dashboard video of fatal encounters with police should be released as a matter of public interest.
In his decision Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that withholding such video, “can undermine confidence in law enforcement and the work that officers routinely perform,” and also “fuel the perception that information is being concealed — a concern that is enhanced when law enforcement officials occasionally reveal footage that exculpates officers.”
This ruling on the release of video footage speaks volumes when fatal interactions with the police statewide are compared to the July 5, 2016 local post-fireworks incident in Maplewood. There was no fatality during the incident, yet there remains no audio or video for public consumption. The questions begs, what is there to hide?
The words of Chief Justice Rabner sound the recurring bell of oppression in the minds of many local residents. There remain unanswered questions regarding the year-long silence and the growing concerns of a cover up by township officials for police brass. Maplewood residents, and particularly the parents and caregivers of black and brown youth, are repeatedly asked to trust and confide in the police. Yet over a year after the “herding” incident, we still cannot get audio/video released; and there was no fatality!
Given the recent court ruling, there is even more reason to release ALL AUDIO AND VIDEO transmission on the night in question. This information, per numerous OPRA requests, should include police audio transmission that identifies the hierarchy of decision-making and police communication throughout the incident, as well as video transmission from public safety street cameras on Parker and Valley Streets, and Boyden and Elmwood Avenues.
While concerned citizens waited patiently during the initial withholding of video evidence due to the “ongoing investigation” by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the withholding of the audio transmission is a clear attempt by local officials to protect those officers who were “in charge” on July 5, 2016. With the Essex County Prosecutor finding insufficient evidence to prosecute Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino and Maplewood Police Capt. Joshua Cummis, and the State Supreme Court ruling, Maplewood Township should simply release the tapes. The recent state supreme court ruling is encouraging as local activists communicate with legal groups and take the next steps.
Until that time, the latest charade of “age-friendly efforts” by Maplewood Police will be met appropriately with eye rolls, blank stares and protests in the African American community; particularly among the youth. It is the height of arrogance for Chief Cimino to think he can wash away last year’s injustice without taking any responsibility. It is an unacceptable slap in the face and flip of the middle finger to the black community on his accountability to us. The collective voice of the New Jersey State Supreme Court contrasts greatly with the hollow words of Maplewood Township’s “Stigma Free” mantra. “Not In Our Two Towns”? Yeah, ok. We will see you in court.
Thomas Whitaker is a Columbia High School teacher and parent. Whitaker filed an Open Public Record Act request for the release of audio and video tape transmissions from an incident involving the arrests of four local teens following the town’s annual fireworks last year. Maplewood Township Counsel has replied that no tapes or reports can be released until all investigations into the incident have been completed.