Why New Jersey wants to block civilian oversight of Newark’s troubled police force



New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal speaks during a news conference in Jersey City, N.J. 


TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ran for office three years ago on a pledge to enact “real criminal justice reform.” And as unrest gripped America after the killing of George Floyd, the white progressive Democrat tweeted a simple, direct show of support: “Black Lives Matter.”

But just one month earlier, right before the nation began another painful reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism, his administration sought to block a civilian oversight board for the long-troubled police department in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, from attaining the power to investigate officers accused of misconduct.

Gurbir Grewal, Murphy’s attorney general, is opposing the proposal over the objection of community members who have long sought the power to investigate officer misconduct — and of Ras Baraka, the city’s Black mayor and an influential political ally.

“At the end of the day, they need to use this time as a watershed moment to do the things that people have wanted to happen for years,” Baraka said.

The standoff between the state and Newark underscores the challenges facing many progressive leaders who cast themselves as reformers but stop short of brokering changes sought by their supporters. For Murphy, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, it threatens to tarnish his reputation as a champion of racial justice and complicate his relationship with Black leaders who have long supported him.

In recent weeks, as state and local leaders across the U.S. wrestled with long-running questions about how to end racial inequality in policing, Murphy has sought to position himself at the head of the pack. The former Goldman Sachs executive, who at one time sat on the national board of the NAACP, has been working with Grewal to champion significant reforms designed to bring accountability to New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies and restore trust in police departments.

But for the last two years, Grewal’s office supported legal efforts by the Newark Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 12 to block a 2016 local ordinance that empowers the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board to subpoena records and investigate individual officers. Grewal, who is not guaranteed independence from the governor on civil matters, has sided with Newark’s police union in the fight, making sweeping legal arguments that could be used to shield officers across the state from civilian oversight.

Newark — a majority minority city — still bears the scars of the 1967 riot that was incited by the violent arrest of a Black man by two white officers, and its police department remains under a federal consent decree entered shortly after the ordinance’s passage.

That decree, which mandated the formation of a civilian oversight board, was the result of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found Newark’s police force routinely violated basic civil rights. Its internal affairs unit was sweeping those violations under the rug, sustaining just one civilian complaint of excessive force out of hundreds between 2007 and 2012, a ratio that was “symptomatic of deeply dysfunctional accountability systems.”

Local officials argue the Murphy administration’s opposition to the ordinance is kneecapping civilian oversight of the police department just as it pledges systemic reform. Arming the board with such a power would build “trust between the community and law enforcement because they feel like there’s redress,” said Baraka, who was elected in 2014 after pledging to reform the department.

“Right now, people do not trust that if somebody gets in trouble — does something wrong in the police department — they’ll get dealt with,” Baraka said.

An appeals court upheld key components of Newark’s ordinance in a ruling last year, including the board’s power to investigate officers accused of misconduct.

That ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court and, in April, a deputy attorney general argued that giving a civilian board investigative power would violate state laws designed to prevent “meddling and undue interference of the police force by civilian authorities.” That’s the purview of the department’s internal affairs unit and the city’s public safety director, the state’s argument went.

Pressed on the subject, Murphy has deferred, touting Newark’s civilian review board as a “big success” even though it has yet to field a complaint since the police union filed its lawsuit. The governor has also noted that similar boards have “to be a consideration on the table as we think about that mosaic” of equitable police oversight moving forward.

In a follow-up statement to POLITICO, Murphy spokesperson Jerrel Harvey said the governor “believes that Civilian Review Boards can be an important tool to ensure that community members have a role in shaping what policing looks like in their communities. There are many different models across the country that give different powers and functions to Review Boards. Regardless of the model adopted, the Governor believes that successful Review Boards need to be independent and reflect the desires and needs of the communities they serve.”

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Bornstein, who argued the case before the state Supreme Court, took a different tact less than two months ago, arguing that giving the board the powers sought by Newark‘s leaders would violate state laws designed to prevent “meddling and undue interference of the police force by civilian authorities.”

“A civilian review board may only investigate the general operations of the police force,” Bornstein told the court.

That’s an incomplete picture of Grewal’s position on civilian review boards, however.

Unlike other state attorneys general, Grewal has unique authority to issue binding guidance to local law enforcement agencies. In the wake of Floyd’s death, he announced new use-of-force guidelines would be forthcoming and recently directed every department in the state to release the names of officers who have committed serious disciplinary violations — information that had only been available if someone were charged with a crime; steps that were lauded by activists and criminal justice advocates.

Grewal got a much colder reception when he issued guidelines for internal affairs units and civilian review boards late last year, shortly after the state Supreme Court announced it would hear the police union’s appeal on the Newark case.

That directive barred oversight boards from obtaining internal affairs records until after the unit had completed investigations into officer misconduct; stymieing powers granted to Newark’s review board by the appeals court.

In addition, review board members and staff who had been convicted of crimes or offenses — even minor drug possession charges — would be barred from handling internal affairs documents without the approval of the county prosecutor and relevant police executive.

Given the arrest rates for Black New Jerseyans versus white New Jerseyans, “that was going to have a hugely racially disparate effect,” said Alex Shalom, the ACLU-NJ’s senior supervising attorney and director of Supreme Court advocacy.

Grewal spokesperson Peter Aseltine said in a statement that the Attorney General’s office had no specific qualms with civilian review boards conducting investigations. Citing Grewal’s December guidance, Aseltine said the AG only opposed those investigations if they’re “for the purpose of imposing discipline on officers.”

Notably, Newark’s ordinance does not grant the CCRB the authority to proffer discipline; it can only use its findings to recommend sanctions to the city’s public safety director.

Anything less would leave the board toothless, said Rick Robinson, head of the Newark NAACP chapter and the appointed chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“If you’re going to spend tax dollars for an entity you better believe you should be spending it in a way where it’s going to be effective,” Robinson said in an interview, adding that, in light of the current national dialogue around police reform, “I really, really hope that the supreme court would actually look at the situation and see what needs to be changed and help to make that change.”

More New Jersey cities may eventually follow suit. Earlier this month, Assemblymember Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) sponsored legislation NJ A4272 (20R) that would require every municipality in the state to establish a review board to investigate complaints against members of the police force.

Even as pressure mounts for local governments to ramp up oversight of local law enforcement, “nothing’s changed from our point of view,” said James Stewart, president FOP Lodge 12.

“It’s an illegal entity in our view,” he said. “We’re more than willing to sit down and discuss reforms with the politicians putting these things into place. We just want the opportunity.”

Earlier efforts to bring both the city and union to the table were unsuccessful. In 2010, the ACLU-NJ took the “last resort” step of requesting a federal probe of the Newark Police Department, claiming a review of internal affairs records and lawsuits found that officers routinely violated residents’ civil rights. Then-Mayor Cory Booker said the report cast “unnecessary aspersions” on the department. He’s since recanted that position.

Derrick Hatcher, the former president of the Newark chapter of the FOP, made the union’s position clear: “We know how to police our police,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger at the time.

Even with recent reforms, including those unveiled by the Murphy administration over the last month, that status quo will no longer suffice, Baraka said.

“The CCRB needs to have the right to an investigation,” he said. “Otherwise it has no authority.”

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