NJ Cops Can’t Hide from Past Misconduct, State Supreme Court Rules

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Photo courtesy NJ State Police via Flickr.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has partially approved a groundbreaking plan to identify the “many police officers disciplined for misconduct” like drinking on the job, abusing family members, or giving false testimony.

The Monday ruling will allow the state’s attorney general to publicly release the names of officers who were found guilty of their misconduct, NJ.com reports. 

Advocates say this is a “significant victory” — considering the unanimous 60-page ruling also determines that any individual disciplined recently will be named, according to NorthJersey.com To that end, officers who were disciplined prior to last year can go to a judge, seeking to block the public disclosure. 

However, the most controversial part of the decision is still left unresolved: a demand that the state police reveal the names of 20 years’ worth of troopers subject to major discipline.

This ruling, no doubt speaking to the heart of long-demanded police reforms with potential lasting ramifications, stems from directives directly from New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who last June reversed a decades-long policy that protects the identities of officers subjected to internal discipline. 

Gurbir Grewal

New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. (Office of Attorney General / Tim Larsen).

At the time, the attorney general said he was ending the practice of “protecting the few to the detriment of the many,” NorthJersey.com details. 

Police union attorneys argued against Grewal’s move, saying he did not have the power to make “such sweeping changes.” The Attorney General’s Office said they did, and that it was time for a change. 

The court sweepingly agreed with Grewal. 

We find that the Attorney General had the authority to issue the Directives,” said Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who wrote the decision for the unanimous court. 

“They are designed to enhance public trust and confidence in law enforcement, to deter misconduct, to improve transparency and accountability in the disciplinary process, and to identify repeat offenders who may try to move from one sensitive position to another,” Rabner continued, as quoted by NorthJersey.com. “In short, the Directives are consistent with legislative policies and rest on a reasonable basis.”

“The Attorney General had the right to change course and direct that details of future serious disciplinary matters — including the names of the officers disciplined — will be revealed to the public,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote, as quoted by NJ.com. 

Undecided: 20 Years Worth of Names

As advocates are accepting this latest ruling as a victory, the controversy over releasing the names of law enforcement subject to major discipline over the last two decades is still undecided. 

Police union attorneys have argued “vehemently” against the idea, noting that the officers whose names Grewal wants to disclose to the public were all “specifically promised that would never happen,” according to NorthJersey.com. 

The court acknowledged the weight of the situation, demanding the attention of a trial judge to take up the matter. 

Pat Colligan, head of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, called the overall ruling “disappointing,” according to NorthJersey.com

“To go back 20 years and say now the rules have changed — it’s akin to going back and changing the speed limit on a ticket you got,” Colligan said.

Wayne Blanchard, president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, generally agrees, but says he and his organization of 1,700 rank-and-file members believe in transparency going forward for certain types of offenses. 

To that end, he expressed to NorthJersey.com that he questions why Grewal wants to make incidents that happened decades ago public now. 

“We think it was agenda-based, and we still scratch our heads at what legitimate purpose it really serves,” Blanchard said. “But we’re certainly pleased to see the troopers in the 20-year lookback have some recourse … and we’re certainly still willing to sit down with the attorney general to negotiate that out. I just don’t see him as a willing party to be part of reasonable reform.”

Union attorneys also worried about retribution against the officers, nodding to our country’s current climate surrounding law enforcement and officer misconduct. 

“It places a target on their back,” said Kevin Jarvis, an attorney representing the New Jersey Superior Officers Law Enforcement Association, in an interview with NorthJersey.com.

Previously, departments released an annual list of actions that required major discipline — but that list did not identify the officers by name.

Promoting Future Transparency

Before this ruling, New Jersey was among roughly two dozen states that allowed police departments to shield most police records from public view, but the protests after George Floyd’s murder last year led some states to “loosen their rules.” 

During the height of the country’s unrest, New York state quickly repealed a law that had kept internal police records sealed for 40 years. 

The state of California has been secretive about it’s movements on the matter in the past, but opened its internal records and library of police video footage to the public back in 2018, NorthJersey.com uncovered

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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