Judge deals major blow to Newark’s civilian review board

The look on Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, member Annette Alston’s face told it all as Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler ripped all the teeth and the claws out of Newark’s CCRB. Newark’s Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, had sued the city almost as soon as the ink dried on the law to create the board. Its attorney spoke during oral arguments Wednesday.

“The CCRB does in fact, by its very language, trample on the authority of the police director,” said Matthew Areman, attorney for the Newark FOP.

In a three-plus hour ruling, Judge Kessler agreed, saying the mayor and council can’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of the police department, they can’t transfer their power to another entity and that there’s a tried and true way to deal with a police chief not doing the job.

“The remedy is to discharge the police chief, not to take over his duties,” said Kessler.

Judge Kessler applauded Mayor Ras Baraka’s intent to reform the police department after the Justice Department found Newark Police routinely trampled on and violated citizens’ constitutional rights, failed to properly investigate complaints and discipline officers.

He said to the city’s credit, “They did not sweep the investigation under the rug.”

The FOP argued the CCRB cannot have subpoena powers under case law. Assistant Corporation Counsel for the city of Newark Avion Benjamin, argued it must.

“If this board is going to be functional, and is going to help stop what has been happening for decades to the city with police misconduct, how can they not have subpoena power to have an officer be able to come in and give his side of the story,” Benjamin said.

The city said the CCRB would not decide, only recommend, an officer’s discipline to the public safety director. The FOP said the CCRB would deny officers due process. Judge Kessler agreed, saying he was not questioning Baraka’s integrity, but he’s concerned the CCRB’s makeup includes some activist groups who might recommend discipline for political reasons.

“I’m not trying to impugn the integrity of any of the organizations involved in this case whose participation is heartfelt and laudable,” said Kessler. “The potential for political mischief with this body is evident.”

Members of the People’s Organization for Progress were livid. Other advocates for reform were more tempered.

“You have to have a long-term view. I don’t think that this moment, in any way, defines the future of police reform in Newark,” said Emily Turonis of the Ironbound Community Corporation.

“Newark has been looked at from all across the country as a leader when we established the CCRB, and all eyes are still on Newark to see what’s going to happen next,” said Diana Houenou of the ACLU-NJ.

The FOP’s lawyer said the judge got it right, but in a statement, Baraka said the city would appeal.

In a statement Baraka said it’s, “a setback to criminal justice reform in America and to the critical need for citizens to have complete trust that incidents of police misconduct will be dealt with fairly.”