Activists call for Civilian Complain Review Boards now

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has been at the front of the front lines on the issue of police reforms and it’s his administration that has taken the fight for a Civilian Complaint Review Board all the way to the state supreme court. It’s a case that many cities are looking at right now for a signal. But many activists are feeling the fierce urgency of now and saying there is no time to wait for a sign from the court.

“Some officials have said that they want to wait until that judgement is handed out and then they’ll decide on what to do locally, but I don’t see a reason for us to wait. I think it’s like a stalling tactic. We should be able to move forward without knowing what the Supreme Court will decide,” said Pam Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition.

The case before the court will determine whether the city’s CCRB should have subpoena power, a critical element to the boards’ effectiveness. Johnson says a CCRB without subpoena power would be almost moot.

“It’s very important to make sure that we have the power to review documentation, the power to speak to officers,the power to see body cam footage and any other footage from any other local establishment that the police have access to. It’s very important for us to make sure that we’re seeing all the information that the powers that be are looking at,” Johnson said.

But some mayors, like Steve Fulop in Jersey City who supports a CCRB in principle, say you can’t even start putting a board together until you get guidance from the state, whether it’s from the court or the Governor’s Office.

“We’re not going to put something in place that we know isn’t going to stand up legally, and we’re not going to try and spend taxpayer dollars on defending something that we know has no chance of being successful,” Fulop said. “So we’re going to look to see whatever is the strongest thing that can be implemented and then we’re going to do it, so we need to see what that looks like.”

The ACLU of New Jersey is advising the court on the case. Alex Shalom is the ACLU’s senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy.

“No matter what the court decides, they’re not going to decide whether CCRB’s are appropriate, or whether CCRB’s are good, they’ll simply say, ‘we believe CCRBs, with subpoena powers and various other authorities, either can or cannot exist under existing New Jersey law.’ So nothing at all precludes the Legislature and the governor from making clear that New Jersey law does allow CCRBs,” Shalom said.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight agrees and has put a CCRB in every town at the center of a bill she’s introducing in the Assembly.

“I know that case is going on and it’s happening, but we can’t wait for that. We need to move forward, especially now. We need to move forward to make sure we’re doing all that we can to stop what’s been happening for years,” she said.

The times are clearly calling for change, and the state’s leaders appear to be hearing the cries, even if they don’t all agree on exactly what that change will look like or how quickly it should come.