N.J. Supreme Court rules city's civilian oversight of police went too far

The court said Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board may not have subpoena power, nor may it launch investigations at the same time a department is investigating its own officers


By Rebecca Panico and Blake Nelson
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey’s top court on Wednesday limited civilians’ ability to investigate local cops in a ruling that sets up a broader fight in the Legislature over how much power non-officers should have to look into alleged police misconduct.

In a 6-1 decision, the state Supreme Court said Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board may not have subpoena power, nor may it launch investigations at the same time a department is investigating its own officers, although the justices allowed the board to retain some other review powers.

The decision ends a long-running legal saga.

In 2016, the Newark City Council passed an ordinance creating the police oversight board, two years after a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice found more than a fifth of Newark cops used excessive force and Black residents were disproportionately the target of stops and arrests.

Newly elected Mayor Ras Baraka said at the time he viewed the report as an “opportunity to build a new roof” and transform the department.

The city agreed to a list of reforms known as a consent decree and a federal monitor was assigned to oversee those goals.

In addition to those ongoing reforms, the city created an 11-member civilian board to investigate allegations of abuse. The appointed inspector general of the board could be a former Newark cop, the ordinance said.

The board was challenged in court by Newark Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12, and the union argued the board would interfere with the department’s own internal affairs process.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal agreed. Last year, he supported the union’s stance, arguing the city “exceeded its authority” when it created a board that could influence discipline.

The civilian board has not yet investigated any complaints, although board members have been appointed.

Calls for civilian oversight have increased in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and state lawmakers could pass a bill to essentially give subpoena power back.

State Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, introduced legislation in June that would require every municipality to create a civilian complaint review board.

A Jersey City councilman also drafted an ordinance to create a civilian complaint review board with subpoena power similar to Newark’s. The City of Orange Township introduced a civilian complaint review board ordinance in July and its police director would’ve sat on the board, although the ordinance later failed.

In Newark, the city touted a 50-year low in crime for 2018, and Baraka signed an ordinance this past July that diverted $11.4 million from the police department toward social services after anti-police brutality protests took place around the nation and in Newark.

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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