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Increased police transparency in New Jersey must be done right

Increased police transparency in New Jersey must be done right

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New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in June directed police departments in the state to start releasing information on officers who have been fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days for misconduct. He ordered his department, including State Police, to release information for their cases going back two decades.

A series of challenges to Grewal’s authority to issue such directives were consolidated into five appeals. Then last month a three-judge appellate panel asserted he has such authority, but said officers affected by the release of information about their cases could bring challenges on other grounds.

Municipal and county police departments face a Dec. 31 deadline for releasing information about cases this year. State Police were supposed to release their information by July 15.

Grewal welcomed the ruling. “When officers fall short, we need to take those infractions seriously, and we need to be candid with the public,” he said.

Ordering the release of records is easier than getting law enforcement managers to be fully candid. The N.J. Office of the Public Defender said Grewal’s directive “does not go far enough because it continues to exempt from public scrutiny cases in which officers received less than a five-day suspension, resigned in lieu of discipline, or a shoddy internal affairs investigation resulted in dismissed complaints.

Numerous groups active in social justice matters want New Jersey to follow the lead of some other states and classify all police disciplinary files as public records accessible by the media and the public. That position is supported by the New Jersey Press Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The Press of Atlantic City.

There is a bill in the state Legislature to do just that. S. 2656, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, has been sitting in the Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee since its introduction in June. With the appellate court’s ruling in favor of Grewal’s authority, more reasons for proceeding slowly and cautiously toward full police discipline transparency have become apparent.

For one, New Jersey’s courts haven’t addressed the issues of privacy and due process in publicizing the administrative details of police disciplinary proceedings — especially retroactively. They are sure to do so eventually when officers and unions mount challenges to the application of Grewal’s directive to them personally.

For another, the worry that suspensions might be limited to four days to avoid disclosure shows that greater transparency will depend on supportive compliance by law enforcement leaders. Government workers in general are slow to discipline each other, let alone make public their shortcomings. Police departments might bring fewer disciplinary actions if they knew they’d be publicized.

Finally, the greater police transparency ordered in some other states offers an opportunity for New Jersey legislators and law administrators to study their results and craft a more effective public records law regarding disciplinary actions.

Better legal grounding, better compliance from law enforcement leaders and a more effective statute based on experience are powerful reasons for the Legislature to proceed slowly and deliberately.

Grewal’s directives are taking effect and more will be known about some of these issues soon. The effectiveness of and public trust in law enforcement are too important not to be served with the utmost diligence.

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