EDITORIAL: Paramus Police Officer Rachel Morgan is outraged that the Bergen Record has asked a judge for the in-car videotape of a crazed gunman shooting her — and so are a rising tide of people who think the newspaper’s got some nerve.
The backlash began after the officer posted a Facebook note Friday that she is “officially DISGUSTED” with the paper for trying to get the video recorded the night of the Super Bowl, when a dangerous lunatic first clipped her cruiser, then shot her repeatedly after his car spun out and crashed into a snowbank.
“What kind of people would ever do that? As if I haven’t been through enough,” Morgan wrote of North Jersey Media Group’s request. “These are the same people that haunted me and my family for weeks after the shooting and apparently have ZERO respect for a person[’]s right to privacy.”
Subscriptions and advertising dollars are “going to lawyers that they are paying so that they can exploit and capitalize on someone else’s tragic event,” Morgan added. “All [I] can say to them is Karma is a bitch.”
A stream of visitors to the “Thoughts & Prayers for Rachel Morgan” Facebook page are vowing to cancel their subscriptions. Some said they are writing to the paper. Devin McGrath of Westwood took it a step further: He posted the best North Jersey Media Group email address to use.
“I see no need for the car video to be seen by anyone OTHER than the proper [a]uthorities,” wrote MaryEllen Cerbasi Hunken of Harrington Park.
“That’s beyond journalism,” added Melissa Sharp, a Westwood High School grad originally from Washington Township. “…it’s downright cruel.”
“The obvious motive is for the website to increase its volume of views at your expense,” wrote Evan Comella of Byram, addressing Rachel directly. “Another crime will be perpetrated by exploiting your pain in this way.”
At least Morgan is able to express herself. That’s a blessing right there, one poster wrote.
Or as the wife of a Bergen officer so eloquently put it: “You are alive, you survived a situation that no camera could capture.”
Sharon Van Tine took the thread in an interesting direction: She suggested approaching lawmakers about possible statutes that would prevent future disclosures under certain circumstances.
(I can hear the A.C.L.U. pounding the desk on that one.)
Which raises concerns from the other side.
“A video like this, as horrific as it might be, has the power to influence people,” said Frank Pelligra, an actor from Ramsey. “If it stops one person who sees it from shooting another cop, because they see the human impact it has… [if] they see in the video that a cop is actually a person who can experience pain, isn’t it worth it?”
Pelligra also emphasized that “any video of an officer in action, in the midst of a life-threatening situation, serves to remind the viewer just how much respect and thanks police officers deserve for the risks they take and the work they do to protect each and every one of us.”
Two veteran newsmen whose opinions I’ve long respected had a different take.
“She is a public employee and that is a public record,” wrote Joshua Tanzer, a multi-talented journalist, filmmaker and web developer who for 10 years had the challenging job of writing headlines for The New York Post.
“There is a trend toward police trying to block journalists and the public from documenting and filming their actions,” Tanzer added, “and that is an invitation to commit and cover up wrongdoing….”
“For what its worth, I’m afraid I have to agree with Josh,” wrote a colleague of mine for many years, Seamus McGraw, a former police reporter who recently published his first novel, “The End of Country.”
“A public record from a public employee is public,” McGraw commented on my Facebook page. “The media should be judicious in using it, but not releasing it is dangerous.”
Between the palpable outrage and the fear of a closed society — BOTH understandable reactions — come deeper thoughts.
“Though the video may be of use to police departments as a learning tool[,] there is certainly no ‘newsworthyness’ to posting the video and hopefully they will back off and respect you and your family,” wrote Heath Gertner, who grew up in Lakewood, where P.O. Christopher Matlocz was ambushed and killed in his patrol car less than a month after Morgan was shot.
Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne may end up agreeing.
Hearing North Jersey Media Group’s request in Hackensack, he asked a simple question: What “significant” public interest would this serve?
The “right to know” argument seemed a bit shallow given the circumstances, an attendee told me.
I feel confident that Doyne will make the right decision. Still, I spent the better part of Friday deliberating whether to say something or sit it out. I consulted people I respect — bright, thoughtful, compassionate professionals, all.
The last half of my 28 years in print were as a crime and justice reporter and then as an editor with the same newspaper. This month marks two years I’ve been publisher and editor of this site, which afforded me the honor of meeting Officer Morgan and the colleague who saved her life, Officer Ryan Halo, along with their boss, Paramus Police Chief Christopher Brock.
There have been times when I considered it important that certain information be released. I’ve also been in positions where I merely wanted to know the whys and wherefores, without publishing anything. I do that regularly now. Makes the decision much easier. Also builds trust.
So when I write this, I’m addressing everyone.
First of all, please understand: This kind of behavior isn’t “rampant” or “everywhere.” The media has many ethical, honorable organizations — staffed by good and kind-hearted people whose stomachs are turning over this.
And as personally revolting as it is, the request is, technically, NOT an invasion of privacy. She was on the job at the time. One of the reasons government likes in-car cameras is the protection they provide against those who would randomly sue police, claiming abuse.
That said, I don’t see any need for anyone outside of law enforcement to scrutinize what went down that night. This already has been done on two levels above the local police. And in these layers of government I have placed my full faith and trust. In my eyes, it’s THEIR call.
After reviewing the entire incident with his top counsel, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli didn’t merely declare the shooting justified. He called a news conference to praise Morgan and Hayo, who got into a firefight with the lunatic before he turned his gun on himself — a determination made by a highly qualified state Medical Examiner.
Molinelli’s report went to state Attorney General Paula Dow, a former federal prosecutor who once held the same office as Molinelli, only in much more dangerous Essex County.
Dow, by the way, reports to a guy who, although best known for bashing police, was once the top federal law enforcement authority in New Jersey.
None of those people, or their staffs, are going to allow even the slightest flaw to pass, not when witnesses, records — and, yes, THE VIDEO — can be subpoenaed in a civil suit by the dead maniac’s family.
To even consider that this group, from differing parties and with different loyalties, would conspire to keep some deep dark secret from you and me really pushes the bounds of belief.
“I’m sure the prosecutor and the AG are both honorable people. But that’s the luck of draw,” Seamus responded. “We’ve had people in the past with phenomenal resumes who have not been trustworthy, and we’ve had people who have been trustworthy who’ve made bad calls all the same. There’s a reason a free press needs to be unencumbered.”
Having been in the belly of the beast, so to speak, for so long, I witnessed a certain self-righteousness that grew from that kind of reasoning. I watched people who weren’t elected or appointed by anyone but themselves assume roles as arbiters of proper and improper actions.
And that’s why I don’t believe this particular organization is doing this to increase pulp circulation or boost online traffic (Onetime spikes skew numbers for all of one day, anyway — then it’s back to the flat line).
No, I think they truly feel they are acting as an independent branch of authority, empowered by the people. And that simply isn’t the way it works — not anymore, anyway.
Newspapers talk about being a “public trust.” But the ultimate object of every single person in the organization, same as it is here, is to make a monthly nut, whether it’s for a company or a household.
(I used to tell my friends that they didn’t have to read the paper as long as they bought it. They got the joke. Guess who didn’t?)
As a part of what once was the mainstream media, I was able to change public policy. I helped put a crooked housing director in federal prison. I went into slums and got up-close-and-personal with heroin dealers and gang members. But I wasn’t acting as some kind of policeman. Something was demonstrably wrong before I pursued any of those stories.
So while I will agree with those who say we are losing the firepower that once belonged to those who bought ink by the barrel, I also see smaller, sleeker, better-skilled local media groups — from Joe Malinconico’s brilliant Paterson Press to Deb “Authentically Local” Galant’s pioneering Baristanet in Montclair to John Ward’s ubiquitous RedBankGreen — all keeping watch for anything fishy. The Republic is in good hands.
We can get extremely emotional — and with good reason — when we think about the gall it takes for this particular organization, already saddled with a decades-long label as an “anti-cop paper,” to demand that video.
But how about this:
Morgan was doing her job when the lunatic clipped her car with his. She was still doing her job when she chased him, got out of her cruiser and ran to his car after he spun out and crashed.
Then he opened fire.
In that moment, who would argue that Paramus Police Officer Rachel Morgan didn’t instantly become a victim?
And in this state, victims have rights, too.