Justices Probe Oversight Board for Newark Police

The Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J. (Courthouse News photo/Nick Rummell)

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A union vying to disband the board that investigates civilian complaints of police misconduct faced a tough audience Monday at the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In a videoconference hearing this morning, attorney Matthew Areman attempted to make the case for the Fraternal Order of Police that state law does not authorize a civilian committee to issue subpoenas. 

The point drew an immediate point of order from Justice Barry Albin. “Are there not three members of the Newark Municipal Council on this committee,” Albin asked. 

Areman agreed but said this does not make the committee authorized. He said state law gives such committees power only to investigate the operations of a police department, not individual officers. 

“Even if there are council members, the right to issue subpoenas extends from the legislative power,” the Markowitz Richman lawyer said.

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Bornstein meanwhile used his argument before the court to stress that letting police departments handle their own investigations prevents “meddling” from civilians. 

“Internal Affairs investigations should be the prime way to investigate police misconduct,” said Bornstein. 

Newark meanwhile urged the panel to affirm dismissal of the union’s case, with the city’s first assistant corporation counsel Avion Benjamin noting that there are 170 civilian complaint review boards nationwide. 

Albin questioned Benjamin on why, under state law, the board has authority over the police chief to conduct these investigations. 

“The police chief has a statute for his authority, you have an ordinance,” said Albin. 

Benjamin explained that the statue Albin was referencing does not foreclose the possibility of a committee. 

“The statue does not bar a committee from doing the job of internal affairs,” Benjamin said. 

Benjamin closed her remarks by advocating that, with the creation of the board, Newark is trying to restore the community trust in law enforcement. 

“We are not anti-police or the FOP,” said Benjamin, using an abbreviation for the union. “We want to work with all of them to make community relations between residents and police officers the way it should be.”

Daniel Howard, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, noted in an email that civilian complaint review boards have the potential to be harmful, but can be helpful in a city like Newark where there are trust issues stemming from police misconduct. 

“If an agency has been plagued with systemic issues such as those alleged in the Newark PD case, one of the only ways to put the transparency needed to rebuild community trust and reinstill the legitimacy of the agency for the partners and stakeholders from all segments of the city is to have an outside check and balance that a CCRB can provide in many cases,” Howard said, using an abbreviation for civilian complaint review board. 

Newark enacted its board with a 2016 ordinance following an investigation by the Department of Justice that uncovered a pattern of police misconduct.

Howard noted that oversight may be difficult for police to accept, but that such efforts are important.

“It is important to keep in mind, if police-community relations are strained or nonexistent to a point where this conversation is even being had then something extreme must be done,” said Howard. “This can be especially true in New Jersey because of the restrictions that unions and collective bargaining present as well as the inability to replace a chief or the upper command staff in a New Jersey agency that other states do not have.” 

David Thomas, a professor in the criminal justice program at Florida Gulf Coast University, noted that whatever benefits a community can gain from civilian oversight are only as strong as the teeth such boards are given.

“It is about transparency,” Thomas said in an email Monday. “However, I believe the CCRB can be an exercise in futility because they have a limited scope of authority although it appears that the CCRB has been granted unlimited authority.” 

Newark’s CCRB consists of 11 members appointed by the mayor, with three spots reserved for elected members of the municipal council and the remaining spots filled by individuals nominated by various organizations. It is empowered by statute to issue subpoenas and investigate individual officers when a misconduct complaint is made. 

The challenge from the police officers’ union went to the state Supreme Court after an appellate panel sided with Newark in June.

In addition to Justice Albin, Monday’s hearing included Chief Justice Stuart Rabner as well as Justices Anne Patterson, Lee Solomon, Walter Timpone, Jaynee LaVecchia and Faustino Fernandez-Vina. 

Lawrence Lutsberg with the American Civil Liberties Union also appeared as a friend of the court. 

Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

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