Effort to expand transparency around police misconduct falls short, critics say

By: - November 15, 2022 5:56 pm

New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin issued a new directive on Nov. 15, 2022, intended to increase transparency around police misconduct. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Attorney General’s Office)

New Jersey law enforcement agencies soon will have to publicly disclose seven kinds of officer misconduct — including discrimination, domestic violence, and filing false reports — beyond the major discipline they’re already required to report annually, under a new directive New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin issued Tuesday.

But the directive — which Platkin touted as an “unprecedented step” toward transparency — instead backpedals on transparency, reformers warn. By requiring agencies to publicly report a “brief synopsis” of misconduct instead of the disciplinary records themselves, Platkin both creates more work for police departments while ensuring the agencies will release a “sanitized” version of officers’ wrongdoing, attorney CJ Griffin said.

“In many ways, it’s the opposite of real transparency. It’s still a document that’s prepared solely for public consumption. Give us the actual documents,” said Griffin, whose court battle for police disciplinary records in Union County led to Tuesday’s directive.

In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled in March that officials must release police disciplinary records when the public’s interest in them outweighs an officer’s confidentiality concerns. Griffin represented police reformer Richard Rivera, who sued Union County officials after they denied his request for records in the investigation of former Elizabeth Police director James Cosgrove, who resigned in 2019 amid accusations of racist and sexist conduct.

Platkin’s office acknowledged Tuesday that, with requests for internal affairs records rising since the ruling, the directive is intended to provide a framework for agencies responding to those requests and ensure all sides can avoid “the need for burdensome litigation.”

Under the directive, agencies will have to report — both to Platkin’s office and on their public websites — all cases of sustained misconduct involving lying; discrimination/bias; excessive force; domestic violence; filing a false report; intentional improper searches, seizures or arrests; and intentional mishandling or destroying of evidence.

The new disclosures are intended to build on disclosures Platkin’s office ordered in 2020. Then, agencies were directed to report major discipline, which is sustained misconduct complaints that result in officer terminations, demotions, or suspensions of more than five days.

But those reports have caught criticism from reformers, who say they often are so vague and brief that they shed little light on what exactly an officer did wrong.

Griffin and Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, expect such problems will persist with the new disclosures.

“There’s no real enforcement mechanism,” Ubel said.

Reformers have battled for years to make internal affairs records fully public in New Jersey, saying such transparency is key to ensuring accountability for police misconduct. But police unions have fought such efforts, and legislation that would open such records has not advanced.

In many ways, it’s the opposite of real transparency. It's still a document that's prepared solely for public consumption. Give us the actual documents.

– Attorney CJ Griffin

While legislators stall, Platkin could deliver true transparency by ordering internal affairs records to be public, Griffin said.

Instead, his office offers “a nugget” of progress while rolling back transparency in hidden ways, Griffin said.

She pointed to a footnote in Tuesday’s directive that rescinded an earlier directive requiring 20 years of retroactive disclosures for state police. The new order also expressly protects internal affairs records — which the Supreme Court’s Cosgrove ruling made more public under the state’s common law right of access — from the Open Public Records Act, she added.

“The AG will keep doing these little policy revisions that have a nugget of progress and will get cheers from the media. But it’s not the kind of transparency we need, and we’re still behind other states,” Griffin said.

Ubel echoed Griffin’s call for increased transparency, pointing to a new state law requiring police officers to get licensed.

“That added credential of police licensing creates another layer of professionalism that gives police more job security,” Ubel said. “With more job security should come more transparency.”



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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.