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Police, state leaders grapple with privacy concerns as law requires PDs to give BWC footage to Youtube ‘creep’

Most body camera footage must be available to the public under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act; police chiefs and politicians are examining ways to protect citizens from exploitation without compromising accountability

“It was never the intent of OPRA to create such a platform that preys on young women and takes advantage of them at a time when they are vulnerable,” said Montville Police Chief Andrew Caggiano, one of three New Jersey chiefs who told NJ Advance Media they received records requests in recent months that appeared designed specifically to obtain videos of young women under arrest.

By S.P. Sullivan

TRENTON, N.J. —The videos, culled from police body cameras, can draw millions of views on YouTube with salacious titles, like “19-Year-Old Girl Keeps Crying and Lying during DWI Arrest” and “Pregnant Housekeeper Arrested After Stealing Breast Pump and Baby Clothes.”

They feature, almost exclusively, women accused of drunken driving, shoplifting and other offenses. Most of them are young. Some are in various states of undress, featured prominently in the video’s thumbnail image.

Many come from New Jersey, where police leaders say anonymous requestors are using the state’s Open Public Records Act, meant to inform citizens and keep government accountable, to exploit young women accused of minor crimes for profit.

“It was never the intent of OPRA to create such a platform that preys on young women and takes advantage of them at a time when they are vulnerable,” said Montville Police Chief Andrew Caggiano, one of three New Jersey chiefs who told NJ Advance Media they received records requests in recent months that appeared designed specifically to obtain videos of young women under arrest.

The footage ended up on a YouTube channel, which as of this week had shared more than 250 videos with more than 86,000 subscribers, racking up over 35 million views. In at least one case, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter, the owner of the page agreed to take down a video when contacted by the woman who was arrested — if she paid up.

The state Association of Chiefs of Police says they want lawmakers to act against “online sexual predators,” and a bill before the state Legislature would make a wide swath of police videos exempt from disclosure in response to their concerns.

“As a law enforcement professional and the father of three daughters, I am sickened by the fact that people are abusing OPRA to post these types of videos on social media sites,” Caggiano said.

It comes as state leaders are considering more broadly overhauling New Jersey’s records law, commonly known as OPRA, for the first time in more than two decades. The measure set off alarm bells among government transparency advocates, who worry government officials will leverage sympathy for exploited young women to roll back public access.

There’s nothing illegal about posting videos obtained through a records request online, and a spokesman for YouTube said the videos don’t violate the site’s community guidelines.

Experts in media and public records laws called the page “creepy” and “exploitation” that pushes the bounds of taste, but differed on whether a change in the law was the right fix.

“The issue is the old one of how society balances individual privacy with a valid public interest when public officials or employees are involved,” said Marc Pfeiffer, a senior fellow at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “Given that people using new technology manage to find new ways to abuse privacy rights, we need to ensure our laws also keep up with the risks new technologies bring. The outliers highlight the issues.”

“There’s a lot of bad uses for public records. You don’t want to legislate against the bad uses in ways that harm the public,” said Kelly McBride, vice president at the national Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

“The law that protects a news media organization reporting on a corrupt politician who has been charged with crimes is the same law that allows this guy to exploit young women who have been arrested for drunk driving.”

A 2017 New Jersey law prohibits “mugshot extortion” sites that post police booking photos and other records, taking them down only in exchange for payment, but that measure opens the operators of such sites to lawsuits, not criminal charges.

The owner of the YouTube channel posting the drunken driving arrests of young women, known as Drive Thru Tours, declined to identify themself when reached via email by NJ Advance Media.

“I am always open to feedback from my audience, and I do plan on posting more videos involving males as well in the future,” the person wrote when contacted by a reporter and asked why the page featured young women almost exclusively.

“I also plan on diversifying and posting videos involving other cases besides DWIs and shoplifting.”

They said the page was “educational” and declined to say how much money it made. When pressed on whether they accepted payment for removing videos, the person stopped responding to NJ Advance Media’s emails.

The YouTube page’s history shows it started in 2020, posting videos of driving tours through Trenton, Newark and Jersey City and street performers in New York. Like most videos on YouTube, hardly anyone watched.

It exploded in popularity last year, after the page began uploading lengthy clips of body camera footage from local police departments across New Jersey and a few other jurisdictions around the country.

Most police departments in New Jersey now equip officers with body cameras, an accountability measure that police leaders and civil rights advocates agree helps keep both cops and the people they encounter on their best behavior.

Members of the public can obtain some of that footage through a records request, though there are exemptions for images of places like schools or private residences, as well as for criminal investigations.

And anyone who has scrolled YouTube or TikTok in recent years has probably seen the glitchy, jostling first-person view of an officer’s body camera posted online.

Like the early reality show “COPS” did on cable, raw footage of police chasing perps and dubiously interviewing drunken drivers gets eyeballs on social media and video platforms. There are pro-cop accounts sharing officers chasing bad guys, police accountability groups calling out misbehaving cops and pages dedicated to general crime and mayhem.

This particular DWI-focused page caught the attention of New Jersey police leaders, however, because of a peculiar pattern of public records requests designed to sift through arrests and zero in on young women, the police chiefs told NJ Advance Media.

For the sake of not providing an instruction manual for potential YouTube copycats, those steps won’t be detailed here. It’s somewhat tedious, but not overly complicated. The end result is specific requests for body cam videos that feature women. Mostly young ones.

The most popular videos feature intoxicated-seeming women in bikinis at the Jersey Shore or form-fitting dresses on the side of the road. They curse, fight, cry or plead with arresting officers. The headlines call them crazy, drunk and belligerent. The comments, tens of thousands of them, alternate between glee and disgust.

“My goal is to illustrate the real-life consequences of driving under the influence and discourage others from driving while they are impaired,” the page’s anonymous owner said in an email, “and I think these videos can serve a ‘safety purpose’ or ‘legitimate public interest’ by preventing accidents and even saving lives.”

Saving lives? McBride, a nationally recognized expert on media ethics, disagreed.

“This is voyeurism,” she said after reviewing the page.

“It’s clearly meant to humiliate and embarrass, and there doesn’t seem to be any public good that comes from this. It doesn’t matter that it says it’s ‘educational’ on the YouTube channel. It’s not.”

Basic details of drunken driving arrests and other minor offenses have long been matters of public record, and news outlets including regularly post snippets of dashboard or body camera footage featuring public figures charged with DWI, including judges and elected officials, particularly in cases where they assert their authority in an attempt to gain leniency or avoid arrest altogether.

But generating YouTube views off the public shaming of private citizens, McBride said, “really is an exploitation of public records” — one that could end up “making it harder for all of us to get public records.”

A bill introduced by state Sen. Anthony Bucco , R- Morris, would prohibit publishing body camera footage “without the prior written consent of each subject” unless it was “for a legitimate public health or safety purpose or a compelling public interest.”

Bucco told NJ Advance Media he introduced the measure in response to the chiefs’ complaints and discussed it with the Senate’s Democratic leadership, who are already looking to make other changes OPRA.

“We’re not sure if this will be a standalone bill or become part of that package,” he said.

CJ Griffin, an attorney who regularly represents news media and local activists in public records fights, said the measure was “grossly overbroad” and would effectively “criminalize” the sharing of videos long considered public records, opening individuals and media organizations up to lawsuits or prosecution.

“We can’t let how one random creep might use a video dictate the state of public access to all videos,” Griffin said.

The police chiefs say they aren’t trying to wall off access or avoid accountability.

“I understand why we have OPRA, but this is an issue, in my opinion,” said Denville Police Chief Frank Perna. “It’s exploitation. The brains need to sit down at the table and come together and make better parameters.”


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