Cops won’t name officer who fatally shot suspect in car chase, prompting grand jury probe. Now they’re being sued for answers.

Updated May 3, 2019

After a Newark police officer repeatedly shot at a fleeing vehicle in a January high-speed chase, killing the driver and critically injuring a passenger, the acting Essex County prosecutor said he had “serious questions about the officer’s conduct.”

More than three months later, the officer’s name is still a secret.

Despite a state Supreme Court ruling that certain records related to police shootings should be public – as well as an attorney general directive ordering prompt release of reports and videos of deadly shootings –prosecutors in Essex County have refused to identify the officer, citing an ongoing investigation.

Now the office faces a lawsuit from an open records advocate seeking to wrest loose the information. The suit, filed by public-records attorney CJ Griffin on behalf of Richard Rivera, a police practices expert and civil rights advocate, argues there is no “lawful reason to justify non-disclosure” of records detailing the officer’s identity.

The fatal encounter that prompted the legal fight began on January 28, when Newark police attempted to pull over a vehicle for driving erratically. The car took off, and police pursued.

According to a police report, one of the occupants of the car had a gun and pointed it at the officers. The unidentified Newark cop fired from a moving police vehicle into the fleeing car on three different occasions during the pursuit, striking driver Greg C. Griffin in the head and passenger Andrew Dixon in the face.

Griffin, no relation to the attorney involved in the suit, later died of his injuries. Dixon survived and was charged with weapons possession after police recovered a handgun from the car.

It is not illegal for police to shoot at moving vehicles, but state guidelines strongly advise against it.

“The safety of innocent people is jeopardized when a fleeing suspect is disabled and loses control of his or her vehicle,” the guidelines say. “There is also a substantial risk of harm to occupants of the suspect vehicle who may not be involved, or involved to a lesser extent, in the actions which necessitated the use of deadly force.”

Nearly a month after the shooting, acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens announced his office was referring the case to a grand jury. Such presentments are common during fatal police shooting probes in New Jersey, but the announcement was unusual because Stephens acknowledged the officer may have behaved criminally.

In response to a March records request filed by Rivera seeking records and video from the pursuit, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office released redacted versions of police reports and refused to release video footage.

“Although suspended without pay, the officer has expressed his/her willingness to voluntarily testify before the grand jury within the next several weeks,” Assistant Prosecutor LeeAnn Cunningham wrote in a response letter. "Should the officer’s name and other records be released to the public, there is serious concern that the officer may no longer voluntarily agree to testify.”

The letter noted the office would “revisit this issue” after the officer testified.

Kathy Carter, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, said the grand jury inquiry remains “active and ongoing.” She referred questions on the suit to a county spokesman, who declined to comment.

A 2017 state Supreme Court ruling found that reports and videos from police shootings were public records subject to release. Those records include use-of-force reports, which identify officers involved by name.

And under state guidelines updated by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year, records and videos from police shootings should be released within 20 days except in extraordinary circumstances. The directive requires county prosecutors to consult with the Attorney General’s Office in such cases.

Reached Friday, a spokesman for Grewal would not say whether his office was aware of or approved the prosecutor’s decision to withhold the officer’s name. Rivera and his attorney argue the prosecutor’s office has had ample time to interview witnesses and preserve evidence, which is the stated reason for delayed disclosure under the state guidelines.

“More than three months have elapsed since this shooting occurred and the public has been deprived of critical information about the incident,” the complaint says.

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that the public’s interest in police-involved shootings is substantial and that the public is entitled to learn the identities of the officers involved in the shootings and see the videos from those shootings.”

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