Newark mayor gets it right on civilian review board: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on January 20, 2015

Kudos to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka for his newly-created civilian complaint review board, which strikes just the right balance between holding the police more accountable and treating officers fairly.

The need for additional oversight was clear: A federal report last year found that the department routinely engaged in excessive force and violated the constitutional rights of citizens.

But while civilian review is crucial to sustaining reform, it was the right call not to give this board the authority to impose direct discipline on cops. Instead, it will recommend actions to the chief and public safety director, who will make the final decision on punishments.

Giving the board more power to punish individual police officers, as the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups initially called for, ran the risk of doing more harm than good. We don’t want this to become a kangaroo court filled with political grandstanders, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this city — like the school advisory board.

That said, let’s hope the department’s top brass takes the board's recommendations seriously, with New York City serving as a cautionary tale.

Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, who stepped down in 2013, routinely rejected sanctions against officers who used the banned technique of the chokehold, and offered no explanation for his leniency. We learned this from a report commissioned after the death of Eric Garner, the first produced by the newly-created office of the inspector general of the New York police department.

Newark has had similar policing problems. The Justice Department found misuses of chokeholds and discipline being doled out based on likeability, rather than objective factors. So it's important to make sure Newark's civilian review board doesn't end up toothless like New York's.

Two good strategies: First, the city will appoint an inspector general to serve on the civilian review board. If top brass wrongly reverse a board recommendation, it could launch its own investigation and suggest policy changes.

Second, Newark should do what Washington, D.C. does already: Set specific parameters for punishments, and when the department can deviate from the review board's findings.

The department shouldn’t be allowed to dismiss discipline reflexively; reversals should be limited to situations when the board is unequivocally wrong. The message to rule-breakers must be clear: The blue shield will no longer protect you.

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