Newly released records in Elizabeth probe offer peek into toxic culture of policing

Ex-police director used common racist and sexist epithets, witnesses told investigators

By: - September 2, 2022 2:49 pm

A portion of the newly released report into the workplace behavior of the now-former Elizabeth police director.

Fourteen people told investigators they heard Elizabeth’s now-former police director use racist and sexist slurs, with one veteran officer shrugging off the language as so common in policing it “was not something you marked down in your calendar,” according to an investigative report released after a protracted public records fight.

The details in the 21-page report about former police director James Cosgrove’s behavior — issued with numerous redactions — show why there should be more transparency around police disciplinary records, said CJ Griffin, an attorney who helped fight all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court for the document’s release.

“It’s just so damning to read that one of the witnesses said a toxic workplace is part of the profession,” Griffin said. “There’s so much secrecy around internal affairs investigations and the workplace culture can be so toxic for officers that it becomes very hard for them to speak out.”

Cosgrove, a retired Newark officer who headed Elizabeth’s police department for over 20 years, resigned in April 2019 after several Elizabeth officers filed complaints about him.

The complaints prompted an investigation by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which sustained three allegations that he violated police department rules prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

The office subsequently refused police reformer Richard Rivera’s request to see records detailing the allegations against Cosgrove and its investigative findings, so he sued for their release. Griffin argued the case on Rivera’s behalf and in March the state’s high court sided with Rivera and ordered the records be made public.

Rivera couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Attorney CJ Griffin has become a leading crusader in New Jersey for more transparency in policing. (Photo courtesy of CJ Griffin)

The Cosgrove records show that a lot of people were aware of the former director’s behavior and feared retaliation for speaking out, Griffin said.

“What the police departments have traditionally argued is that they need this secrecy because no one will speak out if there’s not secrecy,” Griffin said. “But now, they have secrecy — and no one was speaking out.”

Griffin has represented the New Jersey Monitor in various legal matters.

Investigators interviewed 19 people about Cosgrove’s workplace behavior, an investigative memo shows.

Five reported that they’d never heard him use racist or sexist slurs. But 14 reported a wide range of offensive behavior, from loud, slur-riddled, anger-fueled outbursts and retaliatory threats in public settings to derogatory jokes and sexually suggestive comments.

One detective, who himself was accused of using sexist slurs, told investigators foul language is “part of the business.”

Investigators also interviewed Cosgrove, who told them he did not recall using racist or sexist slurs “but if he did, it was in the heat of the moment.”

If someone was offended, he told investigators, “he would gladly apologize to them.”

An Elizabeth spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

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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.