TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — In a win for transparency and police watchdog groups, New Jersey’s appeals court on Friday paved the way for state police officer disciplinary records to be made public.
The 64-page ruling gives Attorney General Gurbir Grewal the green light to follow through with his plans, announced in June, to shine sunlight on the identities of police officers who had receive major discipline for misconduct.
“Today’s decision marks a new day for police transparency and accountability in New Jersey,” Grewal said in a statement Friday.
“As I’ve said all along, the vast majority of law enforcement officers do great work and adhere to the high standards we set for them;” he continued. “So when officers fall short, we need to be able to take those infractions seriously and we need to be candid with the public.”
The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association called the ruling “yet another attack against the good men and women in law enforcement serving communities honorably throughout New Jersey.”
Insisting that “there is very little benefit to publicly shaming law enforcement officers past and present,” the union argued that the disciplinary differences among police departments makes the state’s promised “document dump” a distortion of officer behavior.
The police unions have not stated whether they will appeal the ruling.
Grewal issued directive 2020-5 on June 15, opening up some previously confidential police department internal disciplinary files to public scrutiny. “There are good reasons why internal affairs records are not generally disclosed to the public,” the directive notes, but “the public’s trust depends on maintaining confidence that police officers serve their communities with dignity and respect.”
The directive would reveal the identity of officers in cases where the sanctions led to a termination, rank or grade reduction, or a suspension greater than five days. Such cases include sanctions for using excessive force against civilians, driving while intoxicated, or domestic violence.
The directive applied only prospectively, meaning previous sanctions would remain confidential.
After the directive, a number of police unions filed a petition to stay the order, claiming it violated legislative procedures and could violate confidentiality agreements with individual officers. Further, the unions noted that minor infractions could compound to lead to a five-day suspension.
A number of police groups and civil rights groups joined in amicus briefs.
Despite widespread opposition from police, however, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that Grewal was well within his rights to order the disclosure, and even could have gone farther.
“The attorney general, as New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer, has broad supervisory authority over the enforcement and prosecution of the State’s criminal laws at every level of government,” Judge Allison Accurso wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
Accurso noted that several New Jersey municipalities including Lyndhurst have already made police reports public. She also noted the creation of civilian oversight boards in Newark and elsewhere.
“The erosion of confidence in our law enforcement agencies is a serious problem,” Accurso wrote, noting that Grewal’s intent was to “increase public trust in those agencies and make them more accountable to the communities they serve.”
The appeals court was careful not to pass judgment on the underlying policy, but rather stick to whether it was legally permissible. “It is not for this court to assess the Attorney General’s policy choice,” she added. “Our only focus is on his authority to implement the police choice he has made.”
The opinion also potentially leaves the door open for Grewal to take further action. In a footnote, the opinion notes the action taken by Grewal “is quite limited, and far less than what some of our neighboring states have done in response to similar concerns.”
Accurso conceded that state public records laws are not a “floor” that allow the attorney general to release records on a whim. But she noted that previous executive orders and laws bolster Grewal’s power as the chief enforcement officer of the state to release the records.
“Said another way, attorney general directives have the force of law for police entities in New Jersey because the Legislature has deemed it to be so,” Accurso wrote.
Tinkering with the rule, Accurso said officers should have 14 days to challenge the release of individual disciplinary records for confidentiality reasons, not the seven days under the current directive.
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