Court sides with state comptroller in police training firm’s fight against probe

By: - November 29, 2022 7:02 am

Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh’s office last year asked Street Cop Training for information related to a controversial convention the company held in Atlantic City in 2021, but Street Cop asked a judge to declare Walsh acted outside his legal authority. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A private police training company is losing its fight to stay out of an ongoing state investigation into police departments that used public money to send officers to an Atlantic City conference headlined by controversial Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren.

Street Cop Training, which held the five-day conference in October 2021 at Harrah’s Casino, has accused acting State Comptroller Kevin D. Walsh of abusing his authority and targeting Street Cop for investigation “based on politics.”

Walsh’s office asked Street Cop last May for a list of the 1,000 conference attendees, documents on police agencies’ payments for the conference, unedited recordings of the entire seminar, copies of materials given to attendees, and information about instructors’ qualifications.

Street Cop refused to hand over the information and sued Walsh in early June, asking a judge to declare the comptroller’s police accountability project — launched in November 2021 to investigate waste, fraud, and misconduct in New Jersey law enforcement agencies — outside its legal authority. Three weeks later, Walsh’s office subpoenaed the documents and threatened penalties for noncompliance.

Last week, a three-judge appellate panel rejected Street Cop’s bid to quash the subpoena, upholding a lower court’s ruling affirming the authority of Walsh’s office to compel compliance.

“Street Cop’s arguments are meritless because … police departments have always been subject to investigations and audits in accordance with OSC’s (Office of the State Comptroller’s) enabling legislation,” the ruling notes.

Legislators created the comptroller’s office in 2008 and tasked it with scrutinizing government spending through such means as reviewing public contracts, auditing finances, and evaluating programs’ performance.

A spokeswoman for the office welcomed the ruling.

“As an independent watchdog agency, we have a mandate to protect taxpayer dollars,” spokeswoman Pamela Kruger said. “As the court held, private companies that receive public funds, including companies that train New Jersey police officers, are required to be transparent and cooperate with our investigations.”

But attorney Jonathan Cohen, who represents Street Cop, said the comptroller’s office is the one failing to be transparent.

The office “is doing its business in secrecy, which is antithetical to its mission of accountability and delivers exactly the wrong example to any police department, and if they took our training they would know why this activity delivers exactly the wrong example to a public that is insisting on transparency in enforcement,” Cohen said.

He said investigators refuse to say why they want the documents they’ve subpoenaed and have “stonewalled” on requests Street Cop made under the state’s Open Public Records Act to learn whether Walsh’s office sought records from any other police training vendors. He questioned why a state agency “that has not declared an investigation and cannot articulate a specific interest in our activities (would) believe it is entitled to use subpoena powers for materials related to a meeting attended by more than 1,000 public servants.”

“That only steels our resolve to continue to protect ourselves from unreasonable search not conducted in furtherance of an investigation — which is everyone else’s right as well,” Cohen said.

The Atlantic City conference, which cost $499 to attend, made national headlines after Lahren and other speakers cheered police, dismissed police reform efforts, blamed anti-police sentiment on mainstream media, and encouraged police violence. “Be the calmest person in the room, but have a plan to kill everyone,” one speaker told the audience, according to the Washington Post.

Street Cop is the largest police training company in the nation, Cohen said. It trains 25,000 to 30,000 officers a year, according to the ruling.

Cohen said he doesn’t regard last week’s appellate ruling “as final” and is mulling his legal options.

Dennis Benigno, who founded Street Cop in 2012, previously worked in New Jersey as a correctional officer in Middlesex County and a police officer in Woodbridge.

In Woodbridge, he racked up multiple uses of force, and the township paid $70,000 in 2016 to settle an excessive force and discrimination lawsuit in which three Black women accused him of threatening to shoot them as they left the Woodbridge Center Mall and, along with other officers, forcibly removing them from their car.

Lahren is set to headline Street Cop’s upcoming conference in April in Nashville, along with military combat veterans Kyle Carpenter and Robert O’Neill.

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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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