By Andrew Ford. Published June 29, 2020.
New Jersey cops won’t be able to hide discipline taken against them from future employers under a measure backed Monday by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Phil Murphy.
The key reform was inspired by Asbury Park Press reporting on persistent police accountability gaps allowing cops with disciplinary problems to cloak them in secrecy as they moved from one police department to another.
The state Senate and Assembly, by unanimous votes, passed bills requiring the transfer of a police officer’s ordinarily secret internal files to a prospective employer when the officer seeks work at another New Jersey police department.
The file, while accessible to the prospective hiring agency, would not be released to the public.
Murphy declined to comment on the bill specifically but said generally: “transparency, we’re big believers in.”
The bill was first filed in 2019 by Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, the Assembly’s speaker pro tempore, who attended a 2018 public forum on policing held at the Asbury Park Press office in Neptune. He credited that forum as the inspiration for the bill in a statement to the Assembly.
“That is the reason we are trying to ensure that the receiving departments get all the information on transfers from the sending police departments,” Johnson said. “It also shows the importance of having a free press.”
The bill’s sponsors in the state Senate included Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who also attended the Asbury Park Press forum.
“When there’s hiring going on of these critical front line personnel, who are going to directly interface with one’s residents and carry guns, the previous record should be an open book for the hiring authority,” O’Scanlon said.
The measure would preserve an internal affairs policy change made in December by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that, otherwise, could have been undone by a successor.
The bill addresses a loophole identified by the Press: police departments frequently resolve an officer’s discipline with a taxpayer-funded payout and a binding agreement that the officer would resign in exchange for the department agreeing to give the officer a neutral reference for future employers.
The agreement typically involves a pledge to simply confirm the dates of the officer’s employment if a new department calls and not mention the alleged past misconduct. In 2018, the Asbury Park Press uncovered 68 officers with disciplinary issues who were allowed to resign, at least three of whom found new jobs as cops.
The Attorney General’s December revisions to internal affairs policy discouraged such agreements. The measure backed Monday would go a step further, declaring contracts preventing a police department from sharing an officer’s files with another agency “against public policy and unenforceable.”