Court decision on policing scores victory for transparency, lawyers say

Public officers must release police disciplinary records in New Jersey when the public interest in them outweighs an officer’s privacy concerns, the state’s top court ruled Monday.

Reformers, who have fought for years to open police files to increase accountability for misconduct, hailed the move as a major victory for transparency.

New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, writing for a unanimous court, wrote that several factors should prompt the release of internal case files: the nature and seriousness of the misconduct of an officer, if true, the discipline imposed, the nature of the officer’s position and the person’s misconduct record.

Police internal affairs records are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), Rabner acknowledged. But under the state’s common law right of access, he said, the public interest must be considered.

“The key question is how to balance the need for confidentiality in internal affairs investigations with the public’s interest in transparency when a member of the public requests access to the records of an investigation,” he said. -he writes.

Attorney CJ Griffin, who argued the case on behalf of plaintiff Richard Rivera, said the ruling should help open internal affairs files, at least in the most egregious cases of police misconduct. The ruling sets a bar for why these documents should be released, unlike previous precedents, which outlined reasons for non-disclosure, Griffin added.

“Maybe we won’t get the cases that are like ‘so-and-so was punished because they were late’, but we will get the ones that are about excessive force and discrimination and cases like this “, says Griffon. “We will have to keep advocating because the police department is so secretive. But I think this decision will go a long way toward opening up those cases.

Public access helps deter misconduct and also helps ensure an appropriate response should misconduct occur. In the long term, access to reports of police misconduct such as the one sought here promotes public trust.

– Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Stuart Rabner

The case stems from a February 2019 Internal Affairs complaint that several Elizabeth Police Department employees filed against then-director of the department, James Cosgrove. Employees reported that he used racial and misogynistic slurs when referring to his staff. Internal Affairs officers investigated for two months and supported the allegations, determining that he violated Elizabeth’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

In April 2019, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called for Cosgrove’s resignation, and Cosgrove resigned shortly thereafter.

Rivera, director of the Penns Grove Police Department and a longtime police reformer, filed requests with the Union County District Attorney’s Office in July 2019 for all internal reports on Cosgrove. The prosecutor’s office denied his request, saying they were personal records that were not public under the OPRA.

Rivera sued and a lower court sided with him, saying the case “isn’t about someone’s pension, the abuse of sick leave, the accumulation of holidays, etc.”, but rather “the extraordinary public interest”. The court ordered the release of the records with the plaintiffs’ names redacted.

The prosecutor’s office appealed and an appeals court overturned the trial court’s decision, saying disclosure would discourage witnesses from coming forward and hamper the internal affairs process.

Monday’s ruling overturns the appeal ruling and orders the trial court to release the records once appropriate redactions have been made, including protecting the names of the employees who reported Cosgrove.

In this case, the public interest in disclosure is high, Rabner wrote.

“Racist and sexist behavior by the civilian head of a police service undermines public trust in law enforcement. It undermines trust in law enforcement generally, including the thousands of professionals who honorably serve the public,” Rabner wrote. “Public access helps deter misconduct and also helps ensure an appropriate response should misconduct occur. In the long term, access to reports of police misconduct such as the one sought here promotes public trust.

Rivera called the opinion “huge for transparency in New Jersey on the police front.”

“It throws the door wide open for internal affairs, and it’s going to remove the potential for officers to cover up for each other, using the internal affairs investigative process to hide,” Rivera said.

The ruling may also serve as a boost to reformers who have called for independent oversight of law enforcement through civilian review boards.

“This decision opens the door to civilian scrutiny, because right now, for the first time, the public is going to see how officers are investigating themselves — and police are doing a horrible job of policing each other,” Rivera said.

New Jersey’s criminal justice reformers have tried unsuccessfully for years to get lawmakers to release internal police case files, as is the case in more than half the country. Several Democratic lawmakers reintroduced a bill in January, and it was sent to committee in both houses.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office began reporting annually on major police discipline last year, but the details reported are often so sparse that critics complain they fall woefully short of transparency goals.

Police unions, including the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolence Association, have vigorously opposed these measures. A request for comment on Monday’s decision by the state’s PBA was not immediately returned.

Get morning headlines delivered to your inbox

About Terry Simmons

Check Also

Could Lamoriello’s interest in Kadri lead to swapping a cross?

Another day passes and the New York Islanders remain the only team not to have …