By Andrew Ford, Susanne Cervenka and Alex N. Gecan Published Feb. 9, 2018 by the Asbury Park Press.
Lawmakers in both parties vowed this week to tighten laws to root out bad cops and fix problems with police oversight after reading the Asbury Park Press’ investigation, “Protecting the Shield.”
Prominent legislators, including a former sheriff, in the state Senate and Assembly pledged several actions, all recommended by the series. The lawmakers say they will introduce bills or push for executive branch actions that will: make all lawsuits against the government transparent to the public; order mandatory random drug testing for police officers; create a centralized list of bad cops found unfit to serve; and ask county prosecutors to conduct annual reviews of internal affairs investigations by local police departments.
The top law enforcement figure in the state pledged to improve police accountability, stressing the importance of trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
“While the overwhelming majority of officers work hard each day to maintain that trust and promote dialogue, clearly more can be done and we are actively reviewing how we can improve that process,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Friday in a written statement sent to the Press.
“A vital component of that trust is also increased accountability, which means that we must ensure fair and impartial investigations whenever there is a critical incident such as a police-involved shooting or motor vehicle accident, or when there are allegations of officer misconduct,” he said in the statement.
Grewal pledged to examine “what further safeguards are needed, what reporting mechanisms are used, and how the information is reviewed.”
Some police officers are open to change. The spokesman for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police professional association said the group would be open to a process that would officially bar bad cops from police work.
New Jersey is one of five states that has no method to bar bad police officers from future police work, short of a criminal conviction. The Press identified three officers who faced discipline in one department and moved on to another.
One county has already taken steps to close a loophole exposed by The Shield series. The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office implemented new countywide standards that call for mandatory random drug testing of all officers.
The Asbury Park Press investigation, published Jan. 22, revealed more than $42 million in taxpayer funds spent this decade to hush allegations of police abuse. The Press also found settlements involving police abuse allegations involving 19 deaths, 131 bodily injuries, seven sexual misconduct cases and dozens of other abuse issues. The video above and audio below detail the two-year project.
Three lawmakers said they would increase the visibility of the publicly funded settlements that are often made without public knowledge and often insist on the silence of the citizens involved.
State Sen. Declan J. O’Scanlon Jr., R-Monmouth, said the series “inspired” him to examine police accountability issues.
Commitments to increased transparency
Longtime Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Morris, said he would address confidential settlements with the government. His staff said his office is working on legislation to institute an oversight list of unfit cops and increase the transparency for lawsuit settlements involving local governments.
“The law in New York is such that they’re not allowed to proceed with confidentially as to any public entity, regarding any public entity settlement,” McKeon told the Press. “Why should that be the case in New Jersey? I mean transparency, whenever the government is involved, is essential.”
“I think we should end them,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said of the confidential agreements.
Weinberg, a long-time open government advocate, has been working on legislation to outlaw nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements, as well as bills to update New Jersey’s laws covering public records and public meetings.
She committed to pursuing legislation related to the broader spectrum of government lawsuit settlements, “to make sure that these agreements are public and that the public knows about them,” she said.
Deputy Assembly Speaker Gordon M. Johnson, D-Bergen, also pledged to pursue legislation in response to concerns about these confidentiality agreements.
“It’s tax dollars being used to pay this settlement,” said Johnson, a former county sheriff. “So, the folks who are paying this – taxpayers – should know how their money is being spent.”
State Sen. O’Scanlon was supportive of exposing the settlements though he stopped short of a commitment to make change.
“One’s initial reaction is: why should something paid for with tax dollars be allowed to be kept from taxpayers?” O’Scanlon said. “But I want to be sure I’m taking all the impacts into account. So we’re doing our homework and we’ll get it right.”
A chiefs’ organization believed the settlements were already accessible.
“In my opinion, they really are not secret – they can only be kept as confidential as the law allows, and quite frankly, all you have to do is file an OPRA request,” said South Brunswick police Chief Raymond Hayducka, speaking on behalf of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. Hayducka is a former president of the association and currently serves as its spokesman.
The Press, however, found that many towns and their insurance companies often refused or ignored Open Public Records Act requests, including Atlantic City. Some complied only after the threat of litigation from the Press, while one insurance carrier demanded the payment of thousands of dollars for “research” fees.
Eliminating non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements may actually cause more problems, such as defamation suits, Hayducka said.
State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said he’s reviewing issues raised by the Press investigation.
“The Asbury Park Press report brought up some valid concerns,” he said. “I’m talking with my legislative colleagues, stakeholders and community members to determine what steps can be taken.”
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t respond to requests seeking comment on the issues highlighted by the series. Staffers for state Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he is still reviewing the Press series. Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association President Pat Colligan didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers address police accountability
The Press found more than 100 New Jersey police departments which don’t have a policy mandating random drug testing.
Gopal said the state Senate will pursue making drug testing mandatory for police officers.
O’Scanlon felt consistent random drug testing for police officers was “an easy, no-brainer.”
“Nobody wants an impaired cop,” he said.
Johnson raised concern about the cost of such a program but was supportive of a statewide random testing, which could be brought about by a one-word change to existing Attorney General policy. The policy now says departments “may” perform random testing rather than “shall.”
“Random drug testing, I think, is a good idea,” he said.
The chiefs’ association was not opposed to mandatory testing, Hayducka said, but instituting a mandate may not be so simple because the number of officers tested can be components of union contracts.
“Even if you put a law in, it has to pass the Constitution test,” Hayducka said. “You have to go through the proper process and the steps to facilitate that process.”
Johnson and O’Scanlon agreed to attend the Press’ public policy panel discussion Feb. 12 to discuss police accountability issues in New Jersey.
Johnson served as an Englewood police officer for 24 years, as well as Bergen County sheriff and undersheriff. Johnson said he’d pursue legislation to require greater scrutiny of police department internal affairs investigations by prosecutor’s offices.
Weinberg supported a Press recommendation that each county prosecutor’s office conduct annual reviews of local internal affairs investigations. Most police departments have 23 or fewer officers and the prosecutor does not usually review complaints against officers unless there is a chance a crime has been committed by an officer.
“The county prosecutor’s office has to review all of them on an annual basis and denote patterns that need correction,” Weinberg said. “Whether it’s further training – further firearms training, whatever needs to be done – and the prosecutor’s office should be doing that.”
The chiefs association did not object to the concept of increased county oversight but suggested that there could be hurdles in implementation.
“I don’t think anyone would be opposed to it,” Hayducka said, but “realistically, there is not enough manpower and not enough finances to do that as a full-time, it would be a full-time job.”
Monmouth County drug testing
After the Press identified at least 30 Monmouth County police agencies with no policy for random drug testing, the county prosecutor’s office implemented a uniform drug testing policy for municipal police departments.
The policy, provided in response to a public records request, requires departments to conduct random testing at least “bi-annually.” It doesn’t set a minimum for the number of officers tested each time.
The prosecutor and his staff didn’t respond to requests for details on the policy.
National group supports N.J. change
Police abuse lawsuit settlements should be announced to the public so citizens can monitor officers, according to the executive director for the National Police Accountability Project, a guild of lawyers working to end police misconduct.
“Information on settlements and civil rights litigation is important so that there can be a movement to create police reform in our communities, to prevent civil and constitutional rights of community members from being violated,” director Alison McCrary said.
McCrary supported independent audits of internal affairs investigations, a process for decertifying officers in the same way lawyers or doctors can be banned from their profession, and mandatory random drug testing for police officers.
“These are sworn law enforcement (officers) who have the ability to take someone’s life and I think it’s important that we know the officers who are sworn to protect and serve our communities are free of any substances and to ensure that they’re not part of the drug culture of certain cities,” McCrary said.
The chiefs’ association would consider a certification and decertification process, Hayducka said.
“I think it would help, but the reality is, if there’s a police officer who loses his job or agrees to resign, you can fix that problem by not hiring him with a federal background check,” Hayducka said. Still, “I can confidently say we would be receptive … to looking at a system that requires certification and decertification.”