Court rules N.J. can’t release names of disciplined police officers, at least for now

A New Jersey appeals court has temporarily blocked the public disclosure of the names of state police troopers and local and county police officers sanctioned for disciplinary violations, placing in limbo a reform sought by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

The state Appellate Division, in a stay order Wednesday, halted Grewal’s two directives from last month, and scheduled oral arguments for October.

In response, the Attorney General’s office asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to dissolve the appellate division’s order, stating in a court filing that it “unreasonably delays” Grewal’s directives and “prevents the state from taking steps it believes necessary to improve accountability and transparency in law enforcement potentially until 2021.”

“The Directives seek to swiftly restore trust between law enforcement and the public at a delicate time; a stay that delays transparency and reform thus threatens significant harms on the public and the state,” states the court filing, provided Wednesday night to NJ Advance Media.

Earlier, State PBA President Patrick Colligan issued a statement in support of the stay order.

Colligan said his union is “willing to work with the attorney general towards a resolution that is fair, as we always have.”

“In the absence of partnership that allows us all to root out bad actors without sacrificing individuals who will be unfairly ruined in the rush to secure a soundbite, we will continue to pursue any and all legal remedies,” Colligan said.

The attorney general’s filing with the state Supreme Court stated that disclosing the names “would be in the public interest because it would build confidence in the ‘vast majority’ of officers who did not commit misconduct; deter officer misconduct; strengthen public trust, transparency, and confidence; and improve law enforcement’s culture of accountability.”

Grewal on June 15 ordered all law enforcement agencies to begin disclosing the officers who were fired, demoted, or suspended for more than five days due to a disciplinary violation.

The following day, State Police Superintendent Patrick J. Callahan said the names of present and former troopers would be made public, dating back 20 years

The directives stems from the national discussion about race and policing following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

However, it prompted a near-immediate pushback from police unions.

In the order, Judge Allison E. Accurso alluded to an argument by the unions, that “a significant number of their members entered into voluntary settlements over the past twenty years accepting major discipline in reliance on the department’s assurance that those records would remain confidential.”

“The unions note that the Attorney General candidly acknowledges both the sea change in his Department’s position on the confidentiality of internal affairs records the Directives represent, and that appellants would ordinarily be entitled to a stay to maintain the status quo pending appeal under settled law,” she wrote.

The unions filed the lawsuit one day after meeting with Grewal to discuss his orders, which did not provide a specific timeframe for disclosing names.

In a letter, three of the unions — the State Troopers Fraternal Association, State Troopers NCO Association of New Jersey and State Troopers Superior Officers Association — said they’re not trying to protect “bad apples,” but that the broad release of disciplined officers’ names “serves no legitimate purpose other than to harass, embarrass, and rehash past incidents during a time of severe anti-law enforcement sentiment.”

In Paterson, the state PBA, Paterson Police PBA Local 1 and Paterson PBA SOA Local 1 received a temporary injunction to prevent the release of officers’ names from disciplinary incidents of the past 20 years.

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