Newark deserves civilian review of police misconduct, with teeth | Editorial

Posted May 13, 2019

Newark cops have a sordid history of burying complaints of police abuse or brutality.

In 2014, the Department of Justice found after a three-year investigation that excessive force was a problem concentrated in a small number of officers, who had an outsized effect because they stayed on the street.

Residents who complained were treated like criminals and given Miranda warnings. Yet even if an officer faced multiple accusations, there was no meaningful investigation by internal affairs.

Cops looked out for cops. As a result, out of 261 internal affairs complaints over a two-year period, just one was substantiated – which was implausible on its face, the DOJ concluded.

All this inspired Newark to try to create an oversight board of civilians, to review accusations of police misconduct. It was set up, but never got to review any cases.

It would have had the power to subpoena witnesses or documents and recommend punishment, although the police director still makes the final decision on discipline. A careful balance.

Yet that board has just been neutered in court. Phil Murphy’s Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, is stepping into the legal fight led by the police union, submitting a brief that argues it violates state statute and AG guidelines to have a civilian oversight board with investigative power.

If that’s the case – still under legal dispute – then Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is right: We must change the law and the AG should change his guidelines. Because without subpoena power, this board would be utterly toothless.

The accused cop wouldn’t have to show up to answer questions, witnesses might be afraid to come forward voluntarily and the officer’s history would remain a mystery. No city could have meaningful civilian oversight of its police that way.

“It’s just like why you want to have an independent prosecutor, the same thing the state is doing,” Baraka said Friday. “The idea of having the police investigate themselves has not been going over very well nationally and doesn’t have a good track record.”

No indeed. Our state policy was written with internal affairs units in mind, but the same rigorous standards could, and should, apply to a civilian oversight board.

This includes protecting victim, witness and officer privacy, and deferring to the prosecutor in a criminal matter.

We’re not talking about turning the reins of this department over to activists out for retribution against police. Board members could never get the police director to agree to a punishment without backing it up with solid facts.

And the American Civil Liberties Union and community groups each get only one seat on this board, and stand to lose it if their nominee screws up. So everyone has a stake in getting this right.

The board would adhere to the same privacy standards as an internal affairs unit, keeping the details of a case confidential unless it gets to a disciplinary hearing.

And if there’s so much as a whiff of criminal wrongdoing, it would be required to inform the prosecutor, who takes over. On the prosecutor’s request, the board would halt its parallel investigation, so as not to taint the criminal probe.

The federal Department of Justice has stepped in and is monitoring the Newark police through a consent decree, but that’s not enough. “We need deeper oversight, to increase the faith that people have in the policy,” as Baraka argues.

Cops should welcome an outside board that relieves them of the burden of being responsible for policing themselves. If internal affairs imposes discipline, the officers still have to work under the same roof. And if it doesn’t, it may be dismissed as corrupt, which inflames community distrust and makes it harder to do police work.

This board gives officers the due process they deserve, and the community more trust in their cops. The vast majority of officers, who do nothing wrong, have nothing to fear from a more transparent process.

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