Lawmakers to resume push for civilian review boards

Whether to grant boards subpoena power is still a sticking point

By: - January 21, 2022 6:40 am

Sen. Ron Rice (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus intend to resume a push to pass a bill enabling towns to create civilian complaint review boards, but resistance from police unions over the boards’ potential subpoena powers could see it stall once more.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) in the lower chamber, has yet to receive a companion bill in the Senate, though Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), the former longtime chair of the caucus, said he intends to reintroduce the bill in the upper chamber.

“Hopefully the Legislature would take a good look at it,” Rice said. “Hopefully the Senate president would understand it as an attorney who’s been in the role of defending and prosecuting and whatever else he’s done as a lawyer. Hopefully we’ll get some movement and we’ll get some conversations, at least get some hearings.”

Civilian complaint review boards are resident-staffed bodies that investigate allegations of police misconduct leveled by citizens.

Criminal justice reformers view the panels as a necessary check on police disciplinary systems that are often shielded from public scrutiny. Police unions in some corners of the state have sued towns and cities that establish them, often charging the bodies’ powers outstripped their authority.

“We have to have further conversation,” said Wayne Blanchard, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association. “I think there’s a reason the bill died out in lame duck, and it gets us back to the table — fresh start.”

Civilian complaint review boards already exist in New Jersey and have since Newark created the state’s first CCRB in 2015, but their authority was curtailed after the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2020 ruled they can’t be granted subpoena power and they can’t simultaneously probe matters under investigation by a police department’s internal affairs office.

Only legislation enacted at the state level can change that, the high court said.

Subpoena power remains a sticking point in negotiations between police unions, which say they fear those powers might see unscrupulous use, and the sponsors, who see it as a much-needed tool for tamping down on police misconduct.

“I think if there’s limitations set on subpoena powers, then maybe we have a conversation about that,” said Blanchard, adding he was satisfied with other amendments made to the bill during the previous legislative session.

Those include a requirement that civilian complaint review board members — of which there must be an odd number, no smaller than three — complete training courses on internal affairs policies to be drafted by the Office of the Attorney General. The members would also be required to have experience or training in civil rights, law enforcement, or a related field.

Rice, a former Newark police detective, suggested there may be room to negotiate on the exact terms of subpoena powers but added those provisions will almost certainly remain in the bill even if they do see some changes.

“I understand their concerns about subpoena power, but they also forget I’m a former cop,” he said, later adding, “I think they forget there’re two sides to this stuff. They look at it from the policing side, and they don’t really do a good job of policing themselves. They need to be honest about that.”

The 2021 elections may have narrowed the bill’s path through the Legislature. The measure cleared Assembly committees in party-line votes last year, though it never reached the floor, nor did it win approval from Senate panels. A Republican surge in November left Democrats with the narrowest majorities they’ve held in years.

A changeover in the Senate presidency may complicate things further.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has yet to be tested in his new role, and it remains to be seen whether he can corral his caucus into supporting a controversial piece of legislation a year before every member of the Legislature comes up for re-election in newly drawn districts.

There’s some optimism among the bill’s Assembly backers.

“I think Sen. Scutari has proven to be progressive, and obviously his track record shows that,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), another sponsor. “I look forward to him looking at it and getting a companion bill in the Senate and getting it moved.”

A spokesperson for Scutari did not return a request for comment.

The fate of other police oversight legislation revived in the new session is less certain.

Assembly Democrats reintroduced a bill that would make police disciplinary documents subject to disclosure under the Open Public Records Act.

Former Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) championed that bill before leaving the Legislature in the final days of the lame duck session, and Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) has since taken up the mantle of prime sponsor. It’s unclear if it will advance further than it did last year, when it cleared a single Senate panel.

That bill’s initial introduction in June 2020 closely followed a directive issued by former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that ordered police departments to name officers who were fired or were seriously disciplined in the last 20 years.

New Jersey police unions sued to block the releases ordered by the directive, arguing Grewal overstepped his authority, and the New Jersey Supreme Court last June ruled officers could be named but allowed those disciplined before Grewal’s directive was issued to petition the court to block the disclosure.

“I think releasing a name prospectively under certain circumstances is a great deterrent for misconduct,” Blanchard said, adding he and his union opposed retroactive record releases that may name long-retired officers or those who have been rehabilitated.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.