Major police discipline now publicly reported in N.J. — but is it enough?
Reformers say other measures will do more to hold law enforcement accountable.
The New Jersey Communities for Accountable Policing rallied for police reform at the Statehouse in Trenton on June 21, 2021. ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha is pictured (center) speaking to crowd. Photo by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com.
Monday was supposed to be the start of a “new chapter” in police accountability in New Jersey.
That was the deadline the state Attorney General’s Office set for the state’s 500-plus law enforcement agencies to publicly report major police disciplinary actions.
But the disclosures contain scant details. And some stragglers haven’t yet gotten their reports online. Meanwhile, reformers suspect the records show only a tiny fraction of all alleged disciplinary violations.
While watchdogs welcome any step toward transparency, many say real accountability remains elusive and requires additional, more meaningful reforms.
“This doesn’t go nearly far enough and doesn’t open up information in a way that can be constructively used toward police accountability,” said Joe Marchica, co-chair of Our Revolution Trenton Mercer. “In New Jersey, it’s virtually impossible to get access to individual disciplinary reports unless you’re in the police department itself, or were personally involved in police overreach or violence. So it makes it very difficult to track who the problem police might be.”
Marchica added, “If you can’t hold the ‘few bad apples’ accountable, then you have a system that allows them to hide.”
Monday’s disclosure requirement comes a year after then-state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies to start publicly identifying officers who have been fired, demoted, or suspended for more than five days for disciplinary violations. Grewal made this move just weeks after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd.
Before the order, New Jersey agencies generally didn’t release those details unless an officer was criminally charged.
Several police unions sued to block the order, but an appeals court and the state Supreme Court sided with Grewal, and agencies were required to post disciplinary actions taken during the last half of 2020 by Monday.
A quick Google search shows plenty of police departments complied — and many reported no major disciplinary actions. The records show officers were disciplined for everything from tardiness, abusing sick time, and “idling while on duty” to crimes like drunken driving, theft, and harassment.
Finding the reports can feel like an online goose chase. The Attorney General’s Office launched a public, searchable online portal Tuesday where the public can find the “Annual Major Discipline Reporting Forms” in one place. Steven Barnes, a spokesman for Acting Attorney Gen. Andrew Bruck, said his office would follow up with agencies that did not comply by midnight Monday.
Barnes said former Grewal ordered the disclosures “to help restore public trust in law enforcement and promote a culture of transparency and accountability in policing across New Jersey.” They will remain in effect under Grewal’s successor, Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck, who Barnes said “is fully committed to continuing efforts to advance those critical goals.”
Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, did not return a call seeking comment. In June, Colligan blasted the judicial rulings upholding the order as “both frustrating and disappointing.”
“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,” he said then.
Reformers favor stronger measures
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and other proponents of increased police transparency agree the disclosures don’t go nearly far enough to achieve any meaningful accountability.
“New Jersey lags behind many states in the country” in police transparency and accountability measures, said Sarah Fajardo, ACLU-NJ’s policy director. “We need significantly more transparency in order to build public trust and to identify systemic issues, and therefore identify systemic solutions to misconduct.”
Indeed, the ACLU says, 30 states permit more public access to police disciplinary records than New Jersey.
The ACLU is advocating for three bills — now stalled in the Legislature — that Fajardo said promise to do far more to ensure police accountability than the disclosures the A.G. ordered.
The first would expose police misconduct by making disciplinary records public. A second would give civilian review boards investigative authority, including subpoena power, in police misconduct cases. The third would end qualified immunity, which protects officers from civil lawsuits.
It’s unclear if the three will pass when lawmakers return in November for a lame-duck session.
As members of New Jersey Coalition for Police Accountability rallied on behalf of those bills in Trenton in June, another unrelated bill that would allow police to review body camera footage before writing their reports quickly passed both the Senate and Assembly, with the support of police unions.
“It undermines the great work the governor and his attorney general already had done to pass really strong body-camera legislation,” Fajardo said of that bill, which is on the governor’s desk awaiting his sign-off. The ACLU has called for a veto.
“We really have so much work to do in New Jersey,” she said.
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