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NJ High Court Backs Public Naming of Disciplined Officers

Passed in response to civilian outcry for police accountability, the directives endorsed Monday by the New Jersey Supreme Court require police departments to identify officers who have faced discipline within the past year.

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — The New Jersey Supreme Court gave the green light on Monday for new state directives to release the names of police officers who were disciplined for misconduct.

“The Directives are designed to enhance public trust and confidence in law enforcement, to deter misconduct, to improve transparency and accountability in the disciplinary process, and to identify repeat offenders who may try to move from one sensitive position to another,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the panel. “In short, the Directives are consistent with legislative policies and rest on a reasonable basis.”

Spurred into action following massive protests over the police killing of George Floyd last spring in Minneapolis, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal adopted the directives almost a year ago exactly as a tactic to have more transparency and accountability in law enforcement.

Specifically, the two directives were passed as amendments to the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures. They require all state police agencies to publish a synopsis of all complaints that resulted in an officer being fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days. These synopses must include the names of the officers involved and a description of their misconduct.

Police unions throughout the state went to court, but an appellate judge who heard arguments in March ruled the following October in favor of the directives. That ruling was affirmed unanimously Monday by the state’s high court.

Police unions that have objected to the directives paint them both as an embarrassment and safety risk to officers — especially for officers who made minor mistakes years ago.

Monday's ruling largely sweeps such concerns aside but does forbid the release of any officers pertaining to discipline that occurred before June 2020, when the amendments were passed. The panel said officers who have been disciplined over the past 20 years who were promised their names would not be released may take up their case to a judge to block the public disclosure.

Rabner stressed in the ruling that, not only does Grewal have the authority to enact these directives, but that he was completely reasonable in doing so because it is a common practice.

“The directives implement a practice that is common in other professions. When doctors, lawyers, judges, and other professionals are disciplined for misconduct, their names are made public,” the 60-page ruling states. “The attorney general’s decision to release the names of law enforcement officers subject to major discipline is consistent with his delegated authority and grounded in reason.”

Predictably, the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association panned the decision. 

“The State Supreme Court’s decision is both frustrating and disappointing," ” union President Patrick Colligan said in a statement. "The NJSPBA does not and will not protect bad officers who violate the public trust and, yet, the 99.9% of good men and women serving in law enforcement continue to find themselves under attack. We are pleased that the court recognized that many officers only resolved disciplinary actions because they received specific promises of confidentiality which they relied upon, and that they are entitled to a hearing before release of any information regarding events that may have occurred decades ago."

Grewal meanwhile heralded the ruling as a “new chapter” for police transparency and accountability.

“By lifting the cloak of secrecy over our state’s police disciplinary process, we are not simply ensuring accountability for those who engage in misconduct; we are also demonstrating that the vast majority of law enforcement officers work hard and play by the rules,” Grewal said in a statement.

Of work still to be done, Grewal said he plans to eventually release the names of disciplined officers from the state Justice Department, along with officers in the New Jersey State Police, the Division of Criminal Justice and the Juvenile Justice Commission.

Rabner was joined in Monday's ruling by Justices Anne Patterson, Jaynee LaVecchia, Faustino Fernandez-Vina, Fabiana Pierre-Louis, Lee Solomon and Barry Albin.

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