Records from a road chase in which police fatally shot a 23-year-old black man suspected of stealing an SUV should not be released to the public, an attorney for the New Jersey State Police argued in court Tuesday.
A state appeals panel is weighing whether New Jersey law enforcement agencies have released enough information about the death of Kashad Ashford, who was shot by police in September near the Lyndhurst-Rutherford border.
Authorities have declined to name the officers involved in the shooting, and have not said whether they have video or other records from the scene.
State law requires authorities to release certain documents such as the arrest report within 24 hours. But according to an attorney for North Jersey Media Group, the state has been withholding records for months.
Ashford allegedly was driving a stolen Nissan Armada when state police and officers from Lyndhurst and Rutherford began pursuing him through several towns in Bergen County. Surrounded at one point, Ashford allegedly “backed the SUV at the officers, ramming a police vehicle,” and was shot afterward, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. A loaded handgun was found in the SUV, authorities said.
A sworn statement from the lead state police investigator of the shooting, Detective Cortney Lawrence, does not say Ashford tried to ram a police vehicle after he was surrounded.
Citing state law
At oral argument Tuesday, the attorney for the state police and local police agencies involved in the case said authorities were still investigating, and that state law allows records to remain secret while investigators complete their work. Investigators are also looking into whether police used unlawful force, the state has said.
“Criminal investigatory records are off to the side, they’re not subject to disclosure,” said Jeffrey S. Jacobson, the state’s attorney and director of the state Division of Law, the top-ranking litigator in the Attorney General’s Office. Disclosing more records about the shooting also could lead witnesses to change their testimony, the state has argued.
Reporters from North Jersey Media Group — which publishes The Record — requested a series of police reports and video from law enforcement vehicles under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. Authorities initially declined the requests, and North Jersey Media Group filed a lawsuit seeking the records.
State law requires that police promptly release information “as to the identity of the investigating and arresting personnel,” but in Ashford’s case, “we don’t know who the cop was,” said Samuel J. Samaro, of the Pashman Stein firm, representing North Jersey Media Group.
Samaro also argued that the reporters were never told what records were responsive to their OPRA requests. “The problem in this case is that we have no idea standing here today what the universe of records looks like,” Samaro argued. “The state is supposed to provide some kind of log, a list of things that are responsive to our request.
“You have to make them tell us what they have,” he told the court, “so that we can weigh in on it knowledgeably.”
Jacobson countered that the state could set a dangerous precedent by releasing that log, opening the door so that “a drug dealer in Camden could submit a … request for ‘an index of all the documents in your investigation of me.’ ”
Judge Thomas W. Sumners Jr. asked whether the public has an interest in seeing the records, considering a string of high-profile cases in Staten Island, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., in which police killed African-American males.
Samaro said it was “hugely important” to see the video, if one exists. In the South Carolina case, a white police officer was indicted shortly after video of him surfaced shooting an unarmed black man fleeing on foot.
“There was a video which showed the public exactly what happened, and as a result everybody did the right thing and there was no controversy,” he said. “In this case, we believe there was videotape. If there is videotape, that should be released here.”
Jacobson, the state’s attorney, said the law is “just getting started” on how to handle video from police body cameras and dashboard cameras from police cars. “We certainly don’t want a precedent … that all video information has to be released under OPRA,” he said.
At the trial court level in Bergen County, Superior Court Judge Peter E. Doyne ruled in favor of North Jersey Media Group in January.
“Above all, given the lack of objections from the victim’s family, the public has a greater interest in the release of the records than in their suppression,” Doyne wrote in his decision. “In the shadow of numerous incidents and subsequent protests surrounding killings of African American men by police officers, the public interest is in being informed of details of such an incident.”