Case of Jersey City cop highlights lack of police transparency

By: - September 9, 2021 7:04 am

A criminal case against a Jersey City lieutenant has advocates for police transparency calling for change. (Sophie Nieto-Muñoz for New Jersey Monitor)

It was a fight that started stupidly enough, as fights at boozy bashes tend to do.

The party’s host got mad at a guest packing leftovers into a cooler to take home. The host threw tomatoes at him — and then went and grabbed a shotgun.

“Today is your day!” he shouted at a few guests as they scurried away.

Then he turned the gun in their direction and fired.

No one was injured in the August 2019 incident at Michael Timmins’ home in Sussex County. State police responded, charging Timmins with terroristic threats and possession of weapons for unlawful purposes, which are both typically felony offenses, records show.

The system seemed to work as it should: Guy breaks the law, guy gets arrested.

But two years later, Timmins’ position suggests just the opposite: that the system failed. Timmins is a police lieutenant in Jersey City Police Department.

The details of his 2019 gun arrest are known only because documents including their details became part of the public record — obtained by the New Jersey Monitor — as exculpatory material prosecutors provided in an unrelated murder case.

Timmins’ department has worked hard to hide the incident, writing recently in a state-mandated disclosure only that Timmins “negligently discharged a firearm while off duty and on his personal property.” That disclosure left out all other details, including that he’d had six to eight beers beforehand, as noted by an earlier departmental report on police discipline that shielded officers’ names.

And despite the criminal charges, Timmins has no public criminal record, because he was placed in pretrial intervention, a diversionary program for first-time offenders that results in no conviction.

Police watchdogs suspect Timmins is just one of countless law enforcement officers statewide whose misbehavior has gone unnoticed — and therefore possibly unchecked — because state law protects the secrecy of police discipline records.

If the public doesn’t know about officers’ wrongdoing, they can’t ensure they’re being held accountable for their actions and the public can’t protect themselves, said C.J. Griffin, a Hackensack public interest attorney who advocates for public records access.

“I live in Jersey City, so it’s insanely alarming to me that there’s a police officer walking the streets with a gun and he’s a person who has the temperament to get in a fight, pull a gun and shoot it,” Griffin said. “He’s in a job that requires him to interact with hostile people, maybe even on a daily basis, and yet he has that short of a fuse.”

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A legislative issue

New Jersey is one of about two dozen states where police internal affairs records are confidential. Two Democrats from Bergen County — Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly — have introduced bills (S-2656 and A-4282) to make them public. But they stalled, and it’s unclear if they’ll surface for a vote after lawmakers reconvene in November for their brief lame-duck session.

Weinberg, who isn’t seeking reelection, has a “lengthy lame-duck list” of bills she hopes will see a vote, including the records bill. She pointed to New York lawmakers’ quick action on the issue: Within three weeks of George Floyd’s murder by a Minnesota police officer, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo repealed a 1976 law that shielded police misconduct records from public scrutiny.

“There aren’t many people in our society that we turn over this kind of awesome responsibility as we do to law enforcement,” Weinberg said. “We give them the responsibility of protecting the rest of us, of carrying guns, of being able to arrest any one of us for whatever infraction of the rules. Everyone should support transparency, so that we trust that we’ve given this tremendous responsibility to the appropriate people.”

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Without transparency, we excuse behaviors, we whitewash things, we cover it up.

– Richard Rivera, Penns Grove Police Department Director

Last year, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal made a move toward transparency by ordering all law enforcement agencies statewide to report major police discipline twice a year. Police unions resisted, and the New Jersey Supreme Court had the final say, ruling in June Grewal’s directive would stand. The Attorney General’s office compiled the reports in an online database that became publicly accessible last month.

But the disclosures are so brief and vague — as Timmins’ entry shows — they don’t give a full picture of an officer’s offense. They also can be misleading or flat-out wrong, Griffin said.

That’s why making internal-affairs records public is key, Weinberg said.

“Something is better than nothing. This database at least gives the press and others who might be looking for some leads as to where to try to look more deeply,” Weinberg said. “But it doesn’t go far enough.”

Police unions have fought both the move to open discipline records, as well as the major-discipline database, calling both “an attack” on officers. Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, didn’t return requests for comment. But in a June statement condemning the major discipline database, Colligan said: “Many officers only resolved disciplinary actions because they received specific promises of confidentiality which they relied upon.”

Watchdogs counter that without transparency, the public can’t examine disciplinary actions to uncover systemic issues, identify habitually offending officers, detect disparities in discipline, or discover any other number of potential problems. Opening discipline records ensures the public can judge for themselves the reasonableness of police discipline — and demand accountability, advocates say.

“When things happen in secret, there’s no pressure to get it right. There’s no outrage from the public. Even putting aside the fact that misconduct often is swept under the rug, there are plenty of people that would tell you it’s unfair or discriminatory or used for retaliation,” Griffin said.

One of those people is Asbury Park Police Lt. Kamil Warraich. He’s a whistleblower who has been home on administrative leave — at full pay — for two years after going public with reports of misconduct and racism in his department. His pleas for help to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and other agencies instead got him internal affairs charges for insubordination and other offenses — and eventually his bosses ordered him to stay home. He now is fighting his whistleblower case in court and has become a vocal crusader for opening police records.

“Internal affairs discipline is a double-edged sword. It’s used to retaliate against cops that administrations don’t like. It’s also used to cover up misconduct for the people that they do like,” Warraich said. “There is no accountability without transparency.”

When things happen in secret, there’s no pressure to get it right.

– Attorney C.J. Griffin

Without transparency, troublesome officers can take a job in another agency, where their bosses — and the public — are no wiser about their problematic behavior. That happened in Camden County, where a Woodlynne police officer was suspended last year for pepper-spraying two teenagers without provocation.

Ryan Dubiel pled guilty to simple assault, agreed to forfeit his job, and was prohibited from holding public office or a police position ever again in New Jersey. The incident was one of multiple use of force incidents in Dubiel’s short career, during which he held nine police jobs. That prompted Grewal to hold him up as an example of why police should be licensed in New Jersey, one of only a few states with no licensing in place for police.

Hiding misbehavior also can allow bad officers to preserve their financial futures, off the backs of taxpayers. A group called Libertarians for Transparent Government has filed a lawsuit over records in Cumberland County, after officials allowed a corrections officer, Tyrone Ellis, to retire in good standing even though he admitted to internal affairs investigators that he had sex with two inmates and brought them contraband. Under state law, any public employee convicted of a sex offense involving their employment must forfeit their pension.

Counting on the courts

Griffin hopes the courts will act where the Legislature has not. She has two cases pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court in which she’ll argue to open discipline records. One is the Libertarians case.

The other stems from the controversial 2019 resignation of James Cosgrove, Elizabeth’s longtime police director, after an inquiry found he routinely used racist and sexist slurs in referring to police officers. The city and investigators repeatedly rebuffed requests to publicly release records in the case, and Richard Rivera sued to get them.

Rivera might seem a surprising person to champion the cause of opening police records. He heads the Penns Grove Police Department in Salem County.

But he came to the crusade the same way Warraich did — he was a whistleblower who found no one wanted to hear his reports of corruption in the West New York police department, where he was an officer. The FBI eventually helped him ensure justice, but Rivera still lost his job. He’s made it his mission since to correct systemic defects in policing.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Rivera said. “Without transparency, we excuse behaviors, we whitewash things, we cover it up.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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