While there are some rules that are unique to police records, records held by the municipal, County and State police are subject to the same general rules applicable to disclosure of all public records.
First, it is important to know how to make a request. For records that are held by the New Jersey State Police, those requests should be made through New Jersey’s centralized request portal, here: https://www16.state.nj.us/NJ_OPRA/department.jsp. The “department” is Law and Public Safety, and the “division” is “Division of State Police.” For records that are held by the County police, you should make your request to the County Clerk or the designated OPRA Records Custodian. (Remember, if you transmit your request to the wrong person, they are obligated to either forward your request to the correct person or tell you who the correct person is).
Municipal police departments deserve special mention. OPRA specifically designates the Muncipal Clerk as the “Records Custodian” for municipal agencies. Therefore, your request should always be directed towards that person. However, some municipalities have created seperate OPRA forms specifically for their own police departments and have designated specific civilians or police officers within a department to handle OPRA requests. While these forms and designations do not relieve the Municipal Clerk of the legal obligation to fulfill your OPRA request, if you can readily identify the person within the police department who has been designated to handle OPRA requests for police records, send your OPRA request directly to that person because that will probably save you some time.
Second, we frequently see cases where the police deny access to records because of an “investigation in progress.” However, police cannot deny access to records simply because they relate to an investigation in progress. If any of the records requested were created and were available prior to the investigation, then they are still disclosable, even if they are currently contained within an investigatory file or even if disclosure would be inimical to the public interest. The common example would be a call to 911 to report a crime. At the time of the call, there was no investigation. Therefore, access to the recording cannot be denied because the recording is part of an “investigation in progress.” (Of course, other exceptions may apply to prevent disclosure, but those reasons must be articulated by the Records Custodian).
Certain information must be disclosed by the police, even if it is part of an investigation. According to OPRA, the following information must be disclosed within 24 hours or as soon as practical after a request:
- where a crime has been reported but no arrest yet made, information as to the type of crime, time, location and type of weapon, if any;
- if an arrest has been made, information as to the name, address and age of any victims unless there has not been sufficient opportunity for notification of next of kin of any victims of injury and/or death to any such victim or where the release of the names of any victim would be contrary to existing law or Court Rule (identity of victim can be withheld under certain additional circumstances);
- if an arrest has been made, information as to the defendant’s name, age, residence, occupation, marital status and similar background information and, the identity of the complaining party unless the release of such information is contrary to existing law or Court Rule; and
- the charges, investigating and arresting personnel and agency, information about bail, and information regarding the immediate circumstance of the arrest.
Why are these exceptions important? They are important because many types of police reports contain portions of information that must be disclosed. Thus, while an appropriate response to a request for police records might involve some redactions, the entire document normally should not be withheld.
There are many types of police records that the public should be interested in, including:
- Use of Force Reports. These document every time force is used on a subject.
- Incident Reports. These are usually created when the police respond to a call.
- 911 Calls. Remember, sometimes these calls are received by the municipal police department, but often they are received by a call center that is run by the County.
- Mobile to mobile text messages. The police text each other while they work, too. Those messages are subject to OPRA.
- Audio and video recordings, including car-mounted video cameras on patrol cars.
- GPS data.
- Salary and overtime data.
- Surveillance video from a video camera whose existence is in the open.
In my experience, police who are in charge of responding to OPRA requests are in a tough position. Unlike clerks, they tend to have little or no training in responding to OPRA requests, and they tend to be overly restrictive in their response. It sometimes takes a degree of persistence to get records from police departments.