When New Jersey lawmakers sought advice about police accountability, they turned to Sean Lavin, a police union leader. Lavin testified before state senators, questioning whether civilians are qualified to serve on police oversight boards and suggesting that chokeholds might sometimes be warranted. He also argued against releasing the names of officers who have been disciplined. “It’s a public shaming to their families,” said Lavin, of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council. “I don’t see the value in that, and I don’t think there is one.” Lavin’s own history illustrates that a state law enacted more than a decade ago to jail criminal officers and other public officials who abuse their authority hasn’t worked as intended. Lavin is one of dozens of New Jersey officers who have been criminally charged with official misconduct but avoided the jail time required by the law, report the Asbury Park Press and ProPublica.
Lavin was indicted in 2014 as a Mercer County sheriff’s officer. He was accused of using pepper spray on a handcuffed woman, filing a false report and encouraging other officers to fake reports. The charges included three counts of second-degree official misconduct, which is reserved for public employees accused of criminally misusing their position. A conviction should come with mandatory jail time. Lavin received no jail time, no probation, no criminal record. In exchange for his resignation, he entered a “pretrial intervention” program ordinarily reserved for low-level crimes. It wiped the charges from his record. Plea deals are common. In 2007, a sentencing law was passed and attorney general’s guidelines were enacted to make such deals the exception for official misconduct crimes. Instead, they have become the norm. From 2013 through 2017, prosecutors charged law enforcement officers with official misconduct at least 118 times. Fewer than one-third of them received jail time.