Lags in criminal justice reporting raise reformers’ concerns about transparency

By: - April 27, 2023 7:08 am

New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin touts transparency but reformers say delays in public reporting of many criminal justice measures reveal a faltering commitment to transparency and accountability. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

When New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin expanded the mandatory disclosure of law enforcement disciplinary records last fall, he said such public reporting would provide transparency that’s “fundamental to ensuring confidence in the work of law enforcement.”

Five months later, his office has yet to issue its annual report on major discipline levied on New Jersey’s law enforcement in 2022. Last year, the report was released in February.

A spokesman attributed the lag to “vetting” officials are doing to ensure information police agencies submitted meets all requirements.

But critics say the report’s delay isn’t unusual for an office that promises transparency — but doesn’t always deliver.

“We have pretty extreme secrecy in this state, and the type of information we are able to access, largely, is statistics and reports. Keeping the public from seeing even that minimal amount of transparency is a broken promise,” said attorney CJ Griffin, one of the state’s leading crusaders for public records access and transparency. “Secrecy in policing is a notorious problem that leads to less accountability and more corruption.”

The major discipline report is among many public reporting initiatives the Attorney General’s Office oversees that are late, sometimes by years.

New Jersey State Police haven’t released an annual report since 2020.

The Legislature in 2009 established the Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards within the Attorney General’s Office and tasked it with publicly reporting three things about state police twice a year — their compliance with performance standards, statistics on traffic stops (broken down by station and motorists’ demographics), and data on misconduct investigations, including how many external, internal and total complaints were received and their disposition. But most of the reports released are years old.

Other public reports, on things like asset forfeitures, uniform crime reports, domestic violence, and carjacking, also are years behind, with some reporting that appears to have been abandoned altogether.

The office stymies public records requests too, Griffin said. She requested records last year of two state troopers included in previous major discipline reports, which she said should be public under a court ruling last year that expanded disclosure under the common law right of access. Thirteen months later, the office still hasn’t released them, she said.

“It’s all part of a pattern of noncompliance with transparency requirements,” Griffin said.

Spokespeople for the Attorney General’s Office didn’t respond to questions about the reports’ delays. Trooper Charles Marchan, a New Jersey State Police spokesman, said “vetting” typically holds up their annual reports, but he couldn’t immediately explain the lapse in other public reporting.

A double standard?

Richard Rivera, director of the Penns Grove Police Department and a police reform advocate, called the delays a double standard.

“I have to get all my ducks in a row and have my reports written in a timely manner or there are consequences, but yet the very office that makes me file those reports doesn’t do it themselves,” Rivera said. “It’s ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ That’s what we’re getting from this Attorney General’s Office.”

Griffin was glad to hear officials acknowledge the importance of vetting information submitted to them before issuing a public report.

“It seemed like with the AG’s last two reports, they just sort of took anything that was submitted and threw it into a PDF and released it to the public without in any way seeing if it was in compliance,” she said. “But taking so long is unacceptable, because the public’s waiting for this and there could be a better system.”

She suggested requiring ongoing reporting of some metrics, rather than storing data up for annual release. That already occurs for other public reports the Attorney General’s oversees, such as police use of force, fatal crashes, and bias incidents, resulting in far more timely data.

Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, says the delays show why legislators should act to compel timely reporting. She pointed to a bill — stalled for three years — that would make police internal affairs records public.

“Often people say, ‘well, we have this transparency through the Attorney General’s Office.’ That is supposed to assuage us,” Ubel said. “But if the Attorney General’s Office is behind on all of their reporting, the public doesn’t get the assurance that we’re getting access to the information that we need to feel safe.”


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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.