Should campus and city cops get same treatment? N.J.’s top court to decide in fired officer’s case

The core issue is whether the officer is eligible for a special arbitration from a state employment body since he didn't work for a city

By Kevin Shea

NEWARK, N.J. — The New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a campus police officer fired in 2019 following the arrest of a teen suspect that was posted online by a spectator.

The core issue is whether the officer, Gregory DiGuglielmo, is eligible for a special arbitration from a state employment body since he did not work for a municipality, but a college - the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The decision will impact police officers working for other college or universities in New Jersey, and in the meantime, it illustrates the intricacies of public employment discipline and how details of an incident that are initially cloaked in confidentiality often surface years later in legal filings.

The high court decided Monday to hear the case, following an appeals court’s decision October 2020 denying the officer arbitration.

NJIT this week declined through a spokesperson to comment on the case since it is a pending matter in the courts.

The initial incident occurred on Aug. 26, 2019.

DiGuglielmo and another NJIT police officer he was training arrested the teen near the Newark campus following a pursuit that was initiated due to traffic offenses, the appeals decision says.

A bystander filmed 27 seconds of the arrest, which showed the teen being handcuffed while pinned to the ground. The poster, on Twitter, wrote critically of the police action: “Justice needs to come for this young 15 yr old boy who was clearly frightened and harassed by NJIT police.”

The post is no longer online.

The university said in a statement a few days later that the incident was “concerning” and “troubling,” and said the two officers were being suspended pending an internal review, but never publicized any other details of the incident - including the officer’s identities.

NJIT asked the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate if criminal charges were warranted against DiGuglielmo for alleged excessive force, and in October 2019 the office found insufficient evidence for such a prosecution, the appeals decision says.

The next month, the university police informed DiGuglielmo the review found he violated seven NJIT police department rules. And on Dec. 20, 2019, NJIT served him a letter formally notifying him he was being terminated for cause.

The internal investigation contends DiGuglielmo instructed his trainee to drive against traffic on a one-way street and unlawfully cross an intersection to catch the fleeing boy, who DiGuglielmo tackled and restrained. And the police car’s overhead emergency lights were not activated.

Also, DiGuglielmo confirmed during his internal affairs interview that he yelled profanity at the teen. The juvenile required medical attention as well, the appeals decision says.

The other officer was not named in DiGuglielmo’s appeal decision.

It’s unclear if the teen was ever charged with any violations. He was never publicly identified either.

In early January 2020, DiGuglielmo contested his firing through the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC, which handles public employment matters. He requested “special disciplinary arbitration” for police and firefighters in towns not governed by the state’s Civil Service system.

NJIT lawyers fought it, arguing among other issues, that DiGuglielmo was ineligible since he was not a member of a municipal police force, but an institution of higher education.

PERC cast those arguments aside, ruling they had jurisdiction over DiGuglielmo’s employment, and the only requirement for him to receive the special arbitration was a timely filing - which he’d done.

Also, in what kicked off a battle of semantics, PERC also found that DiGuglielmo was a “law enforcement officer” and that NJIT’s police force was a “law enforcement agency” when compared to state law definitions.

NJIT appealed the PERC decision to the state’s Appellate Division courts.

Joined by Rutgers’ lawyers, NJIT lawyers again argued against officers getting special arbitration, saying their campus police departments are autonomous bodies, and should not be considered police forces like those serving New Jersey municipalities.

In late 2020, an appeals panel found that campus police departments forces are bonafide “law enforcement” agencies, as their officers have the same powers as their municipal counterparts, and they operate as a police forces.

However, the panel sided against DiGuglielmo’s receiving special arbitration, saying their reading of state laws and PERC’s statutes show the benefit is only available to officers in non-Civil Service “municipalities.”

“By any stretch of the imagination NJIT simply isn’t a ‘municipality.’ Consequently, special disciplinary arbitration is unavailable to its officers,” the decision says.

The decision recommends that PERC consider revising its regulations concerning special disciplinary arbitration to include the officers.

Any decision by the state’s highest court, though, becomes law via decision.

Attempts to reach DiGuglielmo or his lawyer were unsuccessful.

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