Fight continues for independent oversight of police

Newark’s mayor joined activists who called on lawmakers to act. For decades many have sought oversight panels with subpoena power to review police complaints
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
File photo: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka renewed his pursuit of civilian oversight for police Thursday, urging the Legislature to post and pass a languishing bill that would create and fund civilian complaint review boards throughout the state. The measure was proposed last year after the state Supreme Court severely limited his city’s review board by revoking its subpoena power.

Fearing the proposed legislation is dying on the vine, Baraka said it must be passed immediately, before the Legislature starts its summer recess. He said he suspects its chances during a lame-duck session will only become worse. His concerns appear to be warranted.

A high-ranking legislative source told NJ Spotlight News that passage of the bill, at least in its current form, is highly unlikely, adding that the Senate is currently working on a revision of the measure, which among other things, could remove or dramatically curtail the provision that grants subpoena power.

“We know there are several iterations of the bill. People are concerned about subpoena power and want to take it out,” Baraka said. “There cannot be a civilian review board without subpoena power.”

“Toothless reform is worse than no reform at all,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, who also spoke at the event.

Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, put it this way in a Facebook post: “There are political forces at work trying to stop the passage of this bill and others that would cause meaningful action on the issue of police brutality.”

Going up against police unions

Bucking police unions has long been risky business for New Jersey politicians, particularly in a year when all legislative seats are on the ballot.

“Current laws and policies in New Jersey afford citizens a woefully weak role in police governance,” said Paul Hirschfield, a Rutgers University associate professor of sociology. “The fact that the state Legislature has failed to move this legislation forward certainly begs the question of how many legislators feel more beholden to police unions than they do to the people who elected them.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin appeared to confirm there was some behind-the-scenes with the bill: “Both Assemblywoman (Angela) McKnight and I have received considerable feedback after the bill’s initial committee hearing in March. The sponsor and I have exchanged concepts in an effort to produce the fairest and most responsible legislation possible. We are also engaged with our partners in the Senate.”

Richard McGrath, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, declined comment.

Subpoena power critical

Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney who has represented the ACLU and various community groups during the litigation regarding the civilian complaint review board and is aware of the current legislative debate over the bill, agrees that these boards would be rendered meaningless without subpoena power. “I think the Legislature understands that CCRBs cannot exercise either their oversight power or any disciplinary authority without at least some subpoena power. And it appears that the attorney general, who originally opposed it, has become much more supportive,” he said. “For those reasons, I think there will be a bill that provides for at least some subpoena power, perhaps subject to some judicial oversight.”

A Newark civilian review board is a cause the mayor inherited from his famous activist father, Amiri Baraka, who joined the crusade in the 1960s. Starting in the early 1990s, Ras Baraka organized dozens of community police-brutality protests on the steps of City Hall, sometimes at his father’s side, demanding a civilian review board. It seemed he had finally achieved that quest in 2016, when the mayor and the City Council passed an ordinance to create one of the strongest such agencies of its kind in the nation.

The victory was short-lived. The Fraternal Order of Police, Newark Lodge No. 12, immediately sued, and last year the state Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, struck down key parts of the city’s 2016 ordinance. Most notably, the court ruled the board cannot be granted subpoena power, according to state law, and it may not conduct investigations at the same time as the police department’s internal affairs office is conducting its own. Only legislative action could grant those powers, the court asserted.

Baraka didn’t see it coming: Newark had prevailed in the trial and appellate courts, but was reversed in the Supreme Court. The push for CCRBs, as well as several other police reform bills, had gained traction in New Jersey and across America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last May. The mayor was incensed.

“At this time in our nation’s history, where the world watched the barbarism of Officer (Derek) Chauvin as he murdered George Floyd with a knee on his neck, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s action is out of step with national sentiment, and failed to remove the knee off the necks of many of us in New Jersey.”

Legislative limbo

Less than a month later, the Assembly Black Legislative Caucus responded: McKnight, Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly (D-Passaic) and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Essex) introduced the civilian review board bill. In March, it cleared the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee but has remained in limbo since.

James Stewart, president of FOP Newark Lodge 12, did not respond to requests for comment.

Baraka believes that passing this bill will pave the way for several other reform bills that have also stalled in Trenton. They include the banning of chokeholds, increased access to police personnel records and the elimination of qualified immunity, which protects police against civil lawsuits.

A civilian review board with the subpoena power and the ability to investigate police misconduct and recommend discipline “are not radical things,” Baraka said. And the results could be lifesaving, he argued.

“Derek Chauvin had five, six, seven cases against him before he committed murder,” he said. “Had they intervened three incidents earlier, George Floyd would still be alive.”

Hamm, who also spoke at Thursday’s event, noted that police have killed 1,050 people in the United States between George Floyd’s murder (May 25, 2020) and Derek Chauvin’s conviction (April 21). “Police brutality is a serious problem in America, and it’s a serious problem in New Jersey.”

Calls for a civilian review board in Newark can be traced back to at least 1962, when then Mayor Hugh Addonizio rejected such a proposal by local activists shortly after he took office.

During the infamous race riots of 1967, sparked by the police beating of a Black taxi driver, the issue was revived in “negotiation” sessions between the Addonizio administration and local activists. Among them was Amiri Baraka,  who was severely beaten and jailed during the uprising. Addonizio rejected it out of hand.

The concept was renewed again in 1968, when a post-riot report commissioned by Gov. Richard Hughes proposed, among other measures,  a civilian review board that very much resembled the one Newark proposed in 2016: “A board should operate outside the structure of the Police Department, be staffed by its own investigators and equipped with subpoena powers,” the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder wrote. “It should have the power to recommend disciplinary action to the police director and to publicize its findings.”

Newark’s next three mayors — Ken Gibson, Sharpe James and Cory Booker — each endorsed the notion of a civilian review board, but failed to make it happen. Then Baraka arrived in 2014, determined to get it done.

Today, there are more than 100 civilian review boards throughout the country, and a handful of them possess subpoena power, including those in Berkeley, Dayton, Knoxville, San Francisco, St. Paul and Washington, D.C. The first civilian review board in the U.S. was established in Washington, D.C., in 1948, and the issue has been contentious since then.

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