The state Supreme Court dealt state police unions a significant legal defeat Monday, upholding Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s executive order to publicize the names of cops who have been subjected to major discipline.
The ruling puts to rest, at least for the moment, the latest skirmish in a flurry of contentious reform measures brought by Grewal and state lawmakers since the police killing of George Floyd over a year ago. Reform advocates and their opponents will now likely turn their attention to other fronts, always challenging in an election year, such as the highly charged bill that would eliminate qualified immunity, which shields officers from civil lawsuits.
Monday’s 60-page unanimous decision clears the way for Grewal’s directive for every police department in New Jersey to annually publish the names of officers who were fired, demoted, or suspended for more than five days. The ruing did, however, add one noteworthy modification: Officers who were disciplined before 2020 can ask a judge to block the public disclosure. Police unions have argued that any disclosure would only “harass, embarrass, and rehash past incidents during a time of severe anti-law enforcement sentiment.”
“The attorney general had the right to change course and direct that details of future serious disciplinary matters — including the names of the officers disciplined — will be revealed to the public,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote.
Ending ‘disciplinary privacy’
Grewal issued the order last summer, shortly after the police shooting of George Floyd in Minnesota, looking to reverse a longstanding practice of affording “disciplinary privacy” for police in New Jersey. It was met with swift and loud opposition from several police unions, who immediately sued.
“Today begins a new chapter for police transparency and accountability in New Jersey,” said, Grewal, who has initiated several other reform measures since last year. “The push for transparency does not end with today’s ruling … More can and must be done as we work to make New Jersey a national leader in policing reform.”
For example, he said he will continue “to move forward with the commitment I made last year: to publish the names of officers who work for our Department — in the New Jersey State Police, the Division of Criminal Justice, and the Juvenile Justice Commission — who were disciplined for serious misconduct at any point in the past two decades.”
The decision is “frustrating and disappointing,” said Pat Colligan, president of the NJ State PBA.
“The NJSPBA does not and will not protect bad officers who violate the public trust and, yet, the 99.9% of good men and women serving in law enforcement continue to find themselves under attack,” Colligan said. “We are pleased that the court recognized that many officers only resolved disciplinary actions because they received specific promises of confidentiality which they relied upon, and that they are entitled to a hearing before release of any information regarding events that may have occurred decades ago.”
NJ lags in police transparency
Police transparency advocates have long argued that New Jersey lags behind most sates on this issue. And while Monday’s ruling was a clear victory for them, there are still those who do not think it went far enough. In fact, there is a bill pending in the state Senate that would allow the public access to all police disciplinary files and internal affairs records.
“We are thankful the Supreme Court recognized the need for more transparency in our state. This decision, however, in no way brings New Jersey in line with states like Florida, Georgia, and New York, where disclosure of all — not just some — police records is the norm,” said New Jersey’s Public Defender Joseph Karkora. “Our attorney general and our Legislature can and must do more. Our Legislature must enact Sen. (Loretta) Weinberg’s bill S-2656, which would make police disciplinary records subject to New Jersey’s open public-records laws.”
Monday’s ruling follows a public plea last week from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka on another police reform lawsuit the court decided last summer in favor of police unions. In that case, the court ruled that Newark’s police civilian complaint review board could not be granted subpoena power under current New Jersey law. Baraka urged the Legislature to pass a bill that would allow it. That bill is currently being reviewed by lawmakers in both houses for a possible compromise measure.
In making his case for that bill, Baraka could just as easily have been advocating for police transparency
Convicted Minneapolis police officer “Derek Chauvin had five, six, seven cases against him before he committed murder,” Baraka said. “Had they intervened three incidents earlier, George Floyd would still be alive.”
Last year, Reuters analyzed Minneapolis Police Department officer complaints over the past eight years and found that nine of 10 misconduct investigations were resolved without punishment or intervention with regard to behavior modification. Of 3,000 complaints during the same period, only five officers were fired. Also last year, the Illinois Supreme Court turned back a police-union lawsuit and ruled that Chicago police-misconduct records more than five years old must be made available to the public.
A 2018 Oxford University study of the hundred largest American cities concluded there is a direct correlation between police abuse and a long string of concessions, including privacy protections, made during collective-bargaining sessions with police unions. Also, a 2017 Reuters special report on police-union contracts in 82 cities found that most departments were required to erase disciplinary records — sometimes after only six months. Eighteen cities expunged suspensions records in three years or less.