Disparities in police discipline drive calls for more transparency

By: - February 21, 2022 6:51 am

Valerie Cobbertt talks at a rally for police reform outside the Statehouse in Trenton on Dec. 2, 2021. Cobbertt’s brother Gulia Dale was shot to death by Newton police on July 4, 2021. (Photo b Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A police officer can take someone’s life in New Jersey and receive no punishment. But if he takes a nap on the job? For Passaic County Sheriff’s Officer Angel Lopez, on-duty snoozing snagged him a five-month suspension.

A cop who uses excessive force can get away with little or no discipline. But those guilty of excessive lateness or absenteeism? Correctional officers Byron Dunn, George Mortensen, and Shola London-Bostic were each suspended for four months for that infraction.

How New Jersey law enforcement agencies punish their own officers for wrongdoing varies wildly, often with minor misconduct earning officers tougher penalties than graver offenses.

Even the same offense results in disparate discipline in many agencies — a DUI got one correctional officer in Hunterdon County arrested and fired, while two Essex County correctional officers accused of the same offense were each suspended 30 days and kept their jobs.

Those were two of the takeaways from a 161-page data drop the state Attorney General’s Office released online last week of major discipline that New Jersey’s 500-plus law enforcement agencies levied against nearly 400 officers last year.

It was the first full year agencies were required to publicly report major discipline, considered a five-day suspension or worse. Agencies last summer reported just a half year of discipline from the last six months of 2020.

Then, as now, reformers complain the reports contain such skimpy details it is hard for the public to know what exactly officers did wrong. Some reports describe officers’ offenses as vaguely as “policy and procedure violations,” as in the case of Saddlebrook Officer Adam Georgaros, whose 123-day suspension is a mystery — at least in the attorney general’s report. Several news outlets reported in 2020 Georgaros was suspended for his role in a high-speed chase of an off-duty colleague who fled a car stop.

But as reformers dig deeper into the data, they agree the major discipline reports — intended to increase transparency and accountability — are “baby steps” that do little to enable reform.

The reports shed no light on whether agencies learned anything from officers’ missteps and then tweaked policies accordingly — something the state should require agencies do, and publicly report, one reform-minded police official said.

“Now we’re reporting discipline, but these reports say nothing about what an agency should do internally to prevent future instances. Did we enhance supervision? Did we change our policy?” said Richard Rivera, police director in Penns Grove. “Agencies don’t want to be embarrassed. It’s a lot easier to vilify one officer than identify the agency failures.”

Law enforcement officers were involved in at least 29 fatal encounters in New Jersey last year, the highest death toll in recent years. And statewide, agencies reported about 15,500 uses of force last year, according to a database maintained by the Attorney General’s Office.

No officers were disciplined last year for using deadly force, and only five were disciplined for improper uses of force, the reports show.

Such discipline numbers reveal serious deficiencies in police accountability in New Jersey, Rivera said.

“With officer-involved shootings, the officer is traumatized and the family is at a loss. No discipline. No agency corrections. The same officer shows up late five times to work, and they get fired,” Rivera said. “The minor issues in a paramilitary organization are overshadowing the serious constitutional and life-threatening issues. That’s it in a nutshell.”

When on-duty officers kill people, grand juries determine whether they should face criminal charges, which can be a lengthy process. A grand jury investigating the case of cops who killed a man in Wayne in April 2020 decided not to charge the officers just last month.

Rivera and other reformers also pointed out the major discipline reports don’t include information about officers’ gender, race, or years of service, which can hide disparate punishment. There’s also no information on when offenses occurred, which conceals how long the disciplinary process can take, especially if officers contest the discipline, Rivera added.

Steve Barnes, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, agreed there’s “still more to be done” and said his office will communicate with agencies “to ensure the public has a full accounting of any incident of major discipline and misconduct.”

The office put a more restrictive use-of-force policy into place last year that requires police chiefs and supervisory officers to review all uses of force to identify systemic issues, including racial disparities, that may require retraining, he said, and the findings are required to be reported to their county prosecutor’s office and the Attorney General’s Office.

The new rules took effect Dec. 31 — after the major discipline cases reported last week closed.

Next up: Internal affairs records

One reformer said the major discipline reports’ shortcomings demonstrate why New Jersey must take a step further and make police internal affairs records public, as they are in more than half of the country.

Internal affairs records would give the public not only more details about what prompted an officer’s discipline, but could uncover offenses that resulted in no discipline, or in deals that allowed officers to dodge tough punishment in exchange for pleading guilty or resigning, said Jennifer Sellitti, an attorney at the state Office of the Public Defender.

That’s especially key when it comes to officers with integrity issues, because concealing such problems can contribute to systemic injustice, Sellitti said. She gave the example of a Middlesex County officer who lied in court that he knocked before entering a home, unaware that a defense attorney had video of him using a battering ram to break in the door.

“He lied under oath and as punishment, got a lecture at roll call,” Sellitti said. Since he did not receive major discipline, she added, “that is not disclosable under the A.G.’s major discipline directive.”

An officer should get more than a slap on the wrist for perjury, she said. But the case also raises other important questions: If he lied in one case, how many other cases did he lie in — and how many people have been unjustly convicted because of his lies?

“Opening internal affairs records is the one reform that undergirds everything,” Sellitti said.

The minor issues in a paramilitary organization are overshadowing the serious constitutional and life-threatening issues. That’s it in a nutshell.

– Richard Rivera, police director in Penns Grove

A bill that would have made police disciplinary records publicly accessible failed in the last legislative session. Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) reintroduced it last month.

Officers’ internal affairs files are hidden even from attorneys who represent people accused by these officers, leaving defense attorneys unable to challenge officer credibility in court, Sellitti added.

Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the secretive nature of cop discipline is a reason police officers are often not trusted in communities.

“It’s crazy that we can get public records access for other professionals, like a barber. But we can’t do it for the one profession that has been deputized to use force and can cause tremendous harms in communities,” he said.

An earlier version of this story said police killed 29 people in New Jersey in 2021. Fifteen people died at the hands of police and 14 more died in police presence or custody, including six from apparent suicides. 

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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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