TRENTON – Police officers would be allowed to view recordings from their body-worn cameras before filing initial reports on most incidents, under a bill endorsed by an Assembly panel Monday over some objections that it tilts the justice system against defendants.

The bill would amend the law enacted last year that regulates the use of body cameras by police, who are now required to wear them on the job unless on an undercover assignment. That law says videos can’t be viewed until after the initial reports, statements and interviews are done.

Amendments to the bill, A5864/S3939, would continue to prevent videos from being viewed before initial reports are filed only in encounters in which a complaint has been registered by a subject in the recording, police force is used resulting in death or serious bodily injury, a police officer shoots a gun, a person dies in police custody or an internal-affairs complaint has been initiated.

Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, D-Essex, the bill’s sponsor and an Essex County sheriff’s officer, said the bill isn’t in conflict with police reform, as it gives officers the tools necessary to do their job the best they can, including filing accurate reports the first time on every-day calls.

“We don’t want to have a gotcha moment,” Speight said. “It’s not just that simple to amend a police report. We will be looked at as a liar if that report is not lined up with the body camera footage.”

Jennifer Sellitti, the director of training and communications for the state Office of the Public Defender, said scrutiny of the accuracy of an officer’s recollection of an incident scene isn’t about playing gotcha but a way to determine how much weight to give his or her testimony.

“Viewing a video contaminates memory. And once memory is contaminated, it can never be uncontaminated. It is shoving the toothpaste back in the tube,” Selletti said.

Selletti suggested defendants – who have the most at stake – and witnesses should have the same opportunity to view videos before making statements, if accuracy is the goal. She said if only a police officer can view the video, it gives a skewed view of their ability to accurately recall an event.

“You are creating an advantage for police officers, and you’re creating this impression in a jury or a judge that this police officer’s memory is really good but everybody else’s memory is sort of flawed,” Sellitti said.

Karen Thompson, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said harmful interactions with police aren’t limited to those involving deadly force.

“Under the guise of accuracy, this bill is allowing room for these shape-shifting forms of harm to be viewed prior to any report being written, providing opportunities to reframe actions or adjust their memories,” Thompson said.

Racquel Romans-Henry, policy advocate for Salvation and Social Justice, said the proposed change would further drive a wedge between police and the community.

“Doing so significantly undermines the trustworthiness of the officer’s report because it allows the officer to intentionally tailor his or her report, or her report, to fit a narrative that may run counter to what actually happened,” Romans-Henry said.

Police union representatives said the bodycam video provides an opportunity to make police reports more factual.

“Do we want concrete experiences or do we want best guesses? We want the best incident report that can possibly be written,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association. “Memory is a volatile resource. Video is not.”

“The law right now currently states you can only view your own camera, so there’s no cooking the books by cops with an agenda,” said Wayne Blanchard, president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association.

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The bill was unanimously endorsed by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, after a hearing that lasted longer than an hour and a half.

“It is important for officers to be given also a little extra because as we stand right now, unfortunately, they’re looked at as the bad guys and that really isn’t the case,” said Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, D-Hudson.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee next Monday.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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