Maplewood Police and Fire Schools / Kids South Orange

Who Requested Traffic Stop Video and When — We OPRA’d the OPRAs

The issue of who had a copy of police dashcam video of a traffic stop involving South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and when is keenly important to some members of the community — and beside the point to others.

Defenders and allies of Lawson-Muhammad are concerned that the video was leaked by those who are political opponents of the Board member. Others have said that Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior as seen on the dashcam video needed to be shared with the community and discussed.

Yet others have expressed concern about what the police or township can reveal to the public and have asked what security measures are in place to assure privacy.

[Updated to add: NJ court rulings are that police dashcam video is public and can be requested through an Open Public Records Act request.)

On May 14, Walter Fields of Black Parents Workshop sent Village Green a copy of a letter to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker saying in part, “It has come to my attention that a current Board member may have been involved in a confrontation with an officer of the South Orange Police Department and may have been verbally abusive to this officer.” Fields also wrote that he “suspects that [Baker is] aware of this incident and may have viewed video of this alleged incident.” In the letter, he said that he would be filing OPRA request for police bodycam, dashcam and radio audio.

Village Green responded to Fields that Village Green had not heard about this incident nor seen the video and asked that he supply more information. Field responded, “We are filing an OPRA request to get the video. Once we do, we will make it available.”

Fields then sent a file of the dashcam video via email to Village Green at 8:26 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16. Village Green viewed the video, began drafting a story and emailed the school district spokeswoman, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, Lawson-Muhammad, Village President Sheena Collum, and South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll for comment.

At 8:51 a.m., Joe Strupp of Tapinto.net published the video. Strupp reported that the video was obtained by Tapinto but did not say how or from whom. Village Green emailed Strupp today for comment and will update should he reply. (Editor’s note: “The ability to report the news often depends on the ability to protect the confidentiality of news sources”; news outlets, including Village Green, often do not report the names of sources.)

Village Green published the video with comment from Walter Fields at 9:50 a.m. (The story was later updated with links to responses from Lawson-Muhammad and Baker and additional comment by Fields.)

In his letter to Village Green accompanying the video, Fields said he obtained the video through an anonymous source. In response to a later inquiry from Village Green, Fields said that he “received an anonymous text on Sunday evening [May 13] en route from Pittsburgh alerting me to the incident.” Fields then wrote a letter to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker on May 14 and said that he had planned to file an Open Public Records Act request for the dashcam footage; however, he reported, “That afternoon [Monday, May 14] I received the flash drive in an unmarked package. I reviewed it Tuesday [May 15] and this morning [Wednesday, May 16] I wrote the second letter.”

In response to Village Green’s OPRA request for all OPRA requests filed for the dashcam video, the South Orange Village Clerk emailed Village Green documentation of eight requests — none of which was answered before May 16.

Strupp was the first to file for the video — on May 14. According to Village records sent to Village Green, Strupp received a reply from the Clerk’s office on May 17.

According to the information sent to Village Green by the South Orange Village Clerk’s office, NJ Advance Media (NJ.com or the Star-Ledger) was the first media outlet to receive the video. Olivia Rizzo of NJ Advance Media filed an OPRA request on May 16 and received the video via email on May 16; however, NJ.com did not publish the video or story until 3:54 p.m. on May 16.

Because Fields’ letter of May 16 to Board President Elizabeth Baker referenced a memo to her from the South Orange Village Trustees dated May 7, Village Green filed an OPRA for that memo on May 16. The Clerk sent the memo to Village Green on May 17. The brief memo from Acting Village Administrator Adam Loehner stated in part, “The Village has great concerns regarding Ms. Lawson-Muhammad[‘s] response to a routine traffic stop for speeding.” The letter was accompanied by a USB drive with the video.

“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,” South Orange Village Trustee Howard Levison wrote on May 18 in response to an email request from Village Green on May 17. “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 important for the BOT to be aware of the incident and to discuss if and what action should be taken.”

The South Orange Board of Trustees viewed a copy of the video in closed session on May 4.

Levison explained, “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 told Village Green she did not support the measure; Collum expressed her thoughts on the traffic stop incident in a letter to the public on May 17.

Regarding the fact that Fields reported that he had obtained the video through unofficial channels, Levison responded on May 18, “There have been many OPRA requests for the video and one of them may have been the source.” In a Facebook post on May 17, Collum reported: “I don’t have an answer yet regarding an alleged ‘leak’ other than I’m aware that an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request was submitted this past Tuesday [May 15] morning (and subsequently, more came in). These are handled by records custodians. I have asked the Legal and Personnel Committee to review this concern.”

The other OPRA requests for the video were:

  • NBC New York (received 5/16 at 11:26 a.m., emailed on  5/17);
  • Worrall Community Newspapers (dated 5/16, received 5/16; emailed on 5/22)
  • Steven Davenport (dated 5/15, marked received by the Clerk on 5/18 and answered on 5/22)
  • Kimberley Collins (dated 5/18, marked received on 5/18 and emailed 5/22)

For the following, the Clerk’s office only sent Village Green the emails that were sent by Joseph Levanda of the SOPD but not the requests (Village Green will confirm with the Clerk that these requests were sent directly to the SOPD and not the Township):

  • to Mr. Gershoff on 5/17, 12:53 p.m. (email address redacted)
  • to Ms. Kim on 5/16, 4:47 p.m. (email address redacted)
  • to Mr. Raymond on 5/17, 1:25 p.m. (email address redacted)

Village Green never filed a request for the video. However, Village Green filed a request for the memo from the SO BOT dated May 7.

Steven Davenport is a Sergeant with the SOPD. Village Green has posted his response to our request for comment here.

On May 17, Village Green emailed the following questions to Steve Rother, Village Counsel, including, “Were BOT members given copies of the the video? Were copies of the video sent to members of the Board of Education?  Can you tell us what security protocols are in place to assure that video of private citizens’ interactions with police are not released through improper channels?”

Rother responded, “Municipalities work on a different schedule, than do news organizations.  Aspects of your inquiry require time for consideration by governing body members, which cannot be done, even at an executive session, without an Open Public Meeting Notice.”

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