NJ Supreme Court strips Newark’s civilian complain review board of subpoena powers

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a split decision on Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, which was created after the Justice Department found widespread unconstitutional policing in Newark and the Internal Affairs Unit not substantiating citizens’ complaints, urging the city to have civilian oversight of police.

The ruling upholds the city creating the CCRB, blocks the CCRB from investigating the same case at the same time as Internal Affairs, and “invalidates the conferral of subpoena power,” meaning the council cannot turn over its subpoena powers to a citizens’ panel.

The mayor said he was disappointed.

“It is not as strong as it started off to be. It has been weakened immensely,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

“You can have any kind of oversight board you want to implement, but you just can’t give any kind of group of people subpoena powers,” said James Stewart, president of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 12.

For more than five decades, advocates have called for a CCRB with the power to subpoena police officers to compel testimony.

“It will in no way stop our struggle for a police review board with subpoena and investigatory power. This is certainly not the first time courts have ruled against important social reforms,” said Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress.

Hamm and other reform advocates say the state’s highest court has given them a roadmap to get subpoena power with the statement: “Legislature must act for council to give subpoena power to CCRB.”

“They found a way to cop out of doing what they probably should have done,” Baraka said. “I think everybody has been trying to pass the buck from the attorney general on. The attorney general can easily allow parallel investigations. And we’re not that disturbed about the parallel investigations because if somebody decides to go to the CCRB and not Internal Affairs, we still have the authority to investigate the case.”

Larry Lustberg argued the case for the ACLU and Newark Communities for Accountable Policing.

“It is incredible easy for the Legislature to establish that CCRBs may have subpoena power. It’s literally a one sentence fix,” Lustberg said.

Vito Gagliardi argued for New Jersey police chiefs.

“This decision allows, after the fact, for a review of how is this police force doing in terms of disciplining officers who have strayed from the lawful path, how is it doing in terms of enacting certain reforms,” Gagliardi said. “So it’s not limiting, I would say it is lawfully channeling civilian oversight of law enforcement.”

“If they go and change the law, then they change the law. But, again, our position was what they did is not permissible in the state of New Jersey, and the Supreme Court agreed with that,” Stewart said.

The mayor says Newark’s CCRB has hired investigators and attorneys, trained its members, and heard complaints but not recommended any disciplinary action to the police division — a division that’s agreed under a court order to reform.

For now, the state Supreme Court has handed a big victory to the Fraternal Order of Police. The mayor insists it’s not over and is planning to appeal to federal court and to state lawmakers.