Police director’s alleged racist and sexist slurs are detailed in a report. City lawyers and county prosecutor don’t want you to see it.

Posted May 2, 2019

By S.P. Sullivan | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and Rebecca Everett | For NJ.com

The city of Elizabeth and the Union County Prosecutor’s Office are fighting the release of an internal report that substantiated claims the city’s ousted police director used racist and sexist slurs against his staff.

In court filings, lawyers for the city and the county prosecutor are seeking to quash a subpoena from an attorney representing an Elizabeth cop in a long-running whistleblower suit.

The report at the center of the fight, prepared by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, found Police Director James Cosgrove had used the c-word and n-word to refer to black and female employees over the course of several years.

It prompted Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to call for Cosgrove’s resignation. Cosgrove stepped down after Grewal met with Mayor Chris Bollwage, Cosgrove’s longtime political ally, amid mounting public pressure. Thursday was his last day.

But the reasons why city and county officials want to keep the report secret are themselves secret. Both parties filed papers seeking to quash the subpoena under seal, meaning their legal arguments aren’t publicly available like most court records.

A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, Mark Spivey, said the motion “was filed in accordance with existing case law and statutes governing the confidentiality of internal affairs investigations and the protection of the identities of witnesses.”

Spokespeople for the city and the state Attorney General’s Office did not respond to questions about the case.

The officer, Barbara Salvero, first sued the city in 2003, alleging “pervasive racial and sexually charged harassment” within the police department. A jury found in 2008 that she was subjected to a “hostile work environment” but not entitled to damages.

The suit has since wended its way through a series of appeals and was scheduled for a new trial later this month, until NJ Advance Media reported that an investigation by the prosecutor’s office substantiated the allegations Cosgrove used slurs against his staff.

Josh McMahon, the attorney whose complaint prompted the prosecutor’s inquiry, claimed in a letter that Salvero was among the employees against whom Cosgrove directed the abusive language. The disclosure prompted Salvero’s attorney, Robert Woodruff, to ask a judge to postpone the trial while he sought more records relevant to the case.

Police internal affairs records are not subject to public release in New Jersey the way they are in many states. But they can be turned over with certain restrictions during lawsuits involving allegations of excessive force, discrimination or retaliation within police departments.

NJ Advance Media has requested a copy of the report under the state’s public records laws, arguing the public’s interest in its release outweighs authorities’ confidentiality concerns. That request is still pending.

Woodruff argued in a Thursday court filing that “the racially and sexually charged statements by Director Cosgrove toward subordinate officers, including (Salvero), present evidence of a custom and/or policy of unlawful discriminatory behavior, which the city of Elizabeth’s leaders, including Director Cosgrove, incited.”

The attorney argued that the report could be provided under seal, which would allow Salvero to access it without making the document public.

According to court records, Salvero alleged a wide array of retaliatory behavior after she first complained of racial and sexual harassment in 2003. In 2009, she alleged she was followed in the police parking area by an unmarked police car.

“The driver of the vehicle revved its engine and ‘lunged’ the vehicle at her,” she claimed, the records show.

In 2012, she claimed a colleague told her superior officers had called her “dumb bitch” and said the department was trying to fire her. She also alleged her calls for backup while responding to dangerous incidents went ignored.

Her case is one of several whistleblower suits the city is facing from police officers alleging favoritism, retaliation and political meddling in the 300-member department serving New Jersey’s fourth-largest city, according to an NJ Advance Media review of court records.

In two other whistleblower suits, four officers claimed they were denied promotions and other opportunities. Those suits, filed in 2016, are still pending in court.

The lawsuits could prove costly. In 2016, a former city fire inspector who claimed years of harassment and retaliation at work was awarded $2.1 million in damages. An Elizabeth attorney at the time said the city would appeal, noting the city was self-insured, meaning any lawsuit payouts would come directly out of city coffers.

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