Newark police need a civilian review board to probe complaints: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on August 31, 2014

The people of Newark have good reason to distrust their cops. A Justice Department report recently found that police in this city routinely violate the rights of citizens, especially blacks. Too often, officers aren’t punished for excessive force, improper searches and wrongful arrests.

The department will soon be getting a federal monitor, which should go a long way toward improving things, as it did for New Jersey State Police. But federal oversight won’t last forever, so it isn’t a permanent solution. That’s why, in addition to this monitor, Newark should establish an independent civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Nearly every major city in the United States already has civilian oversight for its police. As New Jersey’s largest city, Newark is way behind the curve. People who file complaints against the cops need to know that they will get a fair hearing, and the broken internal affairs unit of Newark’s police department doesn’t inspire confidence. Out of 261 internal affairs complaints over a two-year period, just one was substantiated — a statistic that raised the eyebrows of federal civil rights investigators.

To be effective, Newark’s civilian review board must have authority to conduct independent investigations, with subpoena power to summon key witnesses and documents. Police can’t be allowed to just stick a case file in a bottom drawer and let it collect dust, as has been done for years. The board should also examine police policies to make sure they aren’t violating civil rights.

But giving this board the power to discipline individual cops, as the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called for, could ultimately do more harm than good. Nowhere in the country does a civilian review board function like that. Civil service rules and police union contracts may make it impossible, for one.

And the ACLU plan is silent on critical issues, such as who would sit on this disciplinary board. It runs a serious risk of being a kangaroo court. We don’t want police discipline being handed down by the dysfunctional political appointees that poison other city panels, such as the school advisory board.

It is true, as the ACLU argues, that there is a problem of civilian review boards in other cities being ignored. New York City's police commissioners have often refused to follow the civilian review board’s recommendations, ordering no punishment at all or a mere slap on the wrist such as docked vacation days.

We don’t want the same thing to happen in Newark. An additional safeguard could be establishing an inspector general to act as a permanent police auditor, as New York City recently did, and the ACLU has also called for in Newark. This independent expert could recommend best practices and policies and pinpoint problems early. The city and the federal government could also include a sunset clause in their agreement to establish a civilian review board, to allow the rules to be revised after a few years if necessary, to give the board more authority.

With proper oversight, a police chief’s power to discipline heightens his accountability. If a cop engages in misbehavior serious enough that an outside group needs to dole out punishment, it should be our criminal justice system.

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