Another N.J. city takes steps to create civilian board to help oversee cops

Posted Jun 16, 2020

An ordinance in the City of Orange Township was introduced Tuesday to create a civilian complaint review board (CCRB) with subpoena power to investigate claims of police misconduct separately from internal affairs.

Orange’s CCRB has many similarities to the one Newark established in 2016, but there are some differences. Unlike Newark, Orange’s police director would be a permanent, voting member on the board.

The current police director is Todd Warren, who is Mayor Dwayne Warren’s brother. There would be 11 members on the board, including the police director, three council members or their designees nominated by the municipal council as a whole, and seven people from organizations like the ACLU, NAACP, and local organizations like the People’s Organization for Progress, or the University of Orange.

“The more the citizens are engaged and involved, the better for everybody,” said Councilwoman at-Large Donna K. Williams, who introduced the ordinance on first reading. She unsuccessfully ran for mayor this year and will be replaced on the council next month.

The ordinance in Orange passed Tuesday on first reading with council members Kerry Coley, Tency Eason and Harold J. Johnson, Jr. dissenting. Eason, the council president, suggested the vote be pulled from the agenda in case newly-elected council members wanted to make any amendments next month.

Councilman at-Large Christopher Jackson said police accountability was important, but questioned if the council could hold police accountable rather than a CCRB. He also questioned whether having a police director on the board could create a “power struggle" with the civilian members.

“I see that there’s different duties between what the director is going to do and what the citizens would do," said Jackson, who also unsuccessfully ran for mayor and will soon be replaced on the council. "I think that might create power issues. If it’s going to be the citizens, it should really be the citizens running the whole show.”

The members of the CCRB would designate one of their own as chairperson. The police director, however, would serve as the administrative head of the board to help other CCRB members receive complaints, perform investigations, review completed investigations and make policy recommendations.

The police director will also be responsible for audits and report on the fairness of the investigations conducted by the Orange Police Department.

The proposal for Orange’s CCRB comes as Newark’s faces a legal challenge from its local police union that has reached the state Supreme Court. A lower court gave subpoena power back to Newark’s CCRB last year, but the board has waited to begin hearing complaints until the legal battle is decided at the Supreme Court.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal does not support a CCRB with subpoena power since it would make internal affairs reports about officers, which are not public record, available to civilian board members. A key concern from Grewal was that a CCRB would undermine a police department’s ability to carry out administrative punishment for cops.

Orange’s board members would have the power to make findings and “recommend action” about complaints received by the public or other cops about police misconduct.

Jackson, the councilman, noted some issues with the way the ordinance was currently written. For example, Orange does not have a police chief but the ordinance makes reference to one.

The ordinance states Orange’s police chief would have to send the CCRB written notification before handing down discipline to a cop if the board has different findings about a civilian’s complaint or imposes a higher level of discipline for the officer. The board could then request the police chief to appear in person before them to answer questions about the discipline, the ordinance says.

State Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) also sponsored a bill that would allow civilian complaint review boards in municipalities, even though Newark’s case is winding through the courts and a decision is expected sometime this summer.

Williams made reference to Earl Faison, a 27-year-old aspiring rap artist who died 21 years ago in Orange police’s custody, as a need for the CCRB. The high-profile case led to the five Orange cops being found guilty on federal civil rights charges, the Star-Ledger reported, but they were never criminally charged despite calls from Faison’s family and activists.

A final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for July 8, where public discussion can take place.

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