Category Archives: Police Transparency

New Use of Force Policy Makes Positive Changes, But Also Raises Questions

On December 21, 2020, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced changes to the statewide “Use of Force Policy,” the first revision to the policy in two decades. Among other things, the new policy prohibits the use of deadly force against citizens “except as an absolute last resort.” Because the Attorney General is New Jersey’s “chief law enforcement officer,” this policy is binding upon every law enforcement agency in the state.

The new policy has been widely applauded by both the law enforcement community and the civil rights community. In terms of transparency, we find that it contains positive changes but also raises some questions.

Changes to Use of Force Reporting

Readers may recall that there has been significant litigation regarding public access to Use of Force Reports (UFRs), which are reports that law enforcement officers are required to complete, per the policy, any time force is used against another person. In 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that UFRs are subject to OPRA in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017). In 2020, the Appellate Division rejected an agency’s attempt to withhold UFRs that relate to juveniles, ruling in Digital First Media v. Ewing Township, 462 N.J. Super. 389 (App. Div. 2020), that the agency must instead redact the juveniles name from the UFR and release them.  Both cases were litigated by Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.

The new Use of Force Policy maintains the requirement that officers complete UFRs after each and every use of force, but it modifies the requirement in some positive ways.

First, the old policy did not specify a deadline for completing a UFR and many officers would wait weeks or months to fill them out. This kept the public from learning important details about the incident. The updated policy now requires UFRs to be completed within 24 hours. This will ensure prompt public access.

Second, under both the old policy and the new policy, pointing a firearm at someone is considered “constructive authority” and not a “use of force.” Under the old policy, only uses of force had to be reported on a UFR and therefore there was no requirement that police officers complete a report when they pointed a firearm at anyone. Under Section 3.4 of the new policy, officers are required to report anytime they point a firearm at a person. Section 3.7.5 also requires officers to report Conductive Energy Device (tasers) spark displays as well.

Third, under the old policy, force was reported on a one-page hard copy UFR. Under the new policy, force is reported through an online “Use of Force Portal.” Thus, UFRs now exist in electronic form and they will also capture much more information than ever before, making it much easier to analyze trends in how force is used and which officers are using force more than others.

Questions About Public Access

Despite the positive changes, we do have some questions and concerns regarding transparency under the new Use of Force Policy.

First, the Attorney General announced that “a version of the portal will be accessible for public review in the first quarter of 2021.” It is unclear what that public version will look like and whether it will contain as much information as the internal version of the portal. It is also important that the public have access to raw data rather than mere summaries of information and it would be a shame if people still had to file OPRA requests to obtain individual UFRs. We are hopeful that the public portal will be expansive and allow people to download UFRs and analytical reports and that the data is available in real time as UFRs are completed, not on a delay.

Second, we have concerns regarding reporting on deadly force incidents. The old policy required the completion of a UFR for all uses of force, including deadly force. Section 7.3 of the new policy suggests that the new portal will be used to report only non-deadly force because it states: “When an officer uses force as defined in Section 3 of this Policy and the result is not fatal, the officer shall complete a report in the Use of Force Portal[.]”  Section 7.1 then dictates a separate procedure for reporting deadly force: “Notification of fatal and serious bodily injury law enforcement incidents shall be made in accordance with AG Directive 2019-4.”

It is unclear how that deadly force notification actually occurs because Directive 2019-4 simply states: “As soon as any local, county, or state law enforcement agency learns of a Law Enforcement Incident, the agency should immediately notify the County Prosecutor’s Office of the county in which the incident occurred, who shall in turn immediately notify the OPIA Director or their designee.” If those fatal force notifications are made verbally, then there would be no documentation for the public to access. In prior years, agencies would complete a “Police Use of Deadly Force–Attorney General Deadly Notification Report,” but those do not seem to be completed as often now.

If UFRs are no longer required under the new Use of Force Policy for fatal uses of force, that would be a significant departure from the old policy and would shield important details from the public about deadly force incidents.  If the Use of Force Portal does not include data about deadly force incidents, that is alarming and would skew the data in the public portal. The use of deadly force is obviously of significant interest to the public.

For questions about this blog or about OPRA, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Body Cams are Rarely Released on Time

Update as of 10/23/2020:  As mentioned below, we filed OPRA requests on September 26, 2020 for videos that had not been released.  On October 6, 2020, the State said it did not have body cam or dash cam footage of the shooting of Luan Agolli. However, it released some surveillance camera videos here. On October 7, 2020, the State identified the man who died in Totowa on June 27th as Sergio Rodgiguez. As of today, it has not released any videos and said such videos might be produced by October 28, 2020 (which will be 123 days from the incident).

______________________________

In New Jersey, the Attorney General’s Office is required to investigate “[w]henever a person’s death occurs during an encounter with a police officer . . . or while the decedent was in custody.” N.J.S.A. 52:17B-107. In light of that requirement, the Attorney General issued Law Enforcement Directive No. 2019-4, which outlines procedures for selecting the appropriate Independent Investigator and conducting a proper investigation for these fatal incidents. The Directive also requires the disclosure of videos of these incidents, but we find that the transparency measures are not closely followed.

According to Directive No. 2019-4, the “Independent Investigator must release the . . . Incident Footage within 20 days of the . . . Incident, unless the Attorney General, or designee, authorizes a delayed release.” This blog previously discussed a prior iteration of this Directive, highlighting how the 20-day disclosure requirement actually slowed down the access provided by the Supreme Court in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), which held that videos should be released “within days of an incident.” Now it appears that even the 20-day disclosure requirement is being consistently ignored.

Based on data collected from the Attorney General’s website, there have been 12 incidents since January 1, 2020 that the Attorney General’s office has investigated. Nine of these incidents were shootings and three were in-custody deaths:

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that the fastest time that any videos of these deadly incidents were released was 16 days. Those videos related to Maurice Gordon, who was shot and killed by an officer on the Garden State Parkway on May 23, 2020. Gordon’s death received significant media attention and activists demanded that the videos be released.

As detailed in the chart above, it appears that the Attorney General’s Office has complied with the 20-day disclosure requirement only a single time this year. Sometimes, investigators have taken more than double the time allotted by Directive No. 2019-4, with three incidents taking 44 days, 48 days, and 50 days. In the case of a man who died after a physical altercation with Trenton police, videos were not released for 153 days.

There are three incidents (two of which are in-custody deaths with unidentified decedents) where it does not appear that videos have been officially released. Working alongside our longtime client, Richard Rivera, we filed requests for these videos on September 26, 2020.

The Attorney General has repeatedly spoken out in favor of transparency, arguing that New Jersey should become national leaders on the issue. Ensuring that his office complies with his own Directives would be a good place to start.

For questions or comments about this article or about OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

Court Hears Appeals of AG Major Discipline Disclosure Directives

In mid-June 2020, the Attorney General of New Jersey issued two important police transparency directives, both of which have been challenged and were before the Appellate Division this week.

The first directive, Law Enforcement Directive 2020-5, requires future disclosure of the names of officers who have been subject to “major discipline,” which is described as a sanction of termination, demotion, or five or more days of suspension. 

The second directive, Law Enforcement Directive 2020-6, orders the State Police and other state law enforcement agencies to make a retroactive disclosure, requiring disclosure of the names of those who have received major discipline for the past twenty years.  The Attorney General also gave county and municipal departments the discretion to make retroactive disclosures and some have made the decision to do so.

Unfortunately, several police unions very quickly filed emergent appeals to stop the Directives from taking effect. The Appellate Division granted a temporary stay of the Directives until the appeals could be heard.

On September 16, 2020, the Appellate Division heard oral argument in the appeals, which lasted more than four hours. The full audio of the hearing can be downloaded via the Judiciary here.

CJ Griffin, Partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden and Director of firm’s Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center, participated in the oral argument and filed a pro bono friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National Coalition of Latino Officers (NCLO) and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), two non-profit organizations comprised of current and former law enforcement officers. These organization’s asked the court to uphold the Directives and argued that transparency earns the public’s trust, which leads to members of the public being more likely to cooperate with investigations, report crimes, and ensure that police departments have proper resources to perform their jobs safely. Additionally, the AG’s transparency Directives would greatly benefit officers of color and women officers because it would allow organizations like NCLO to identify racial and gender disparities in how major discipline has been imposed upon officers.

The Trentonian has published an article summarizing the Appellate Division arguments, which can be viewed here:

CJ Griffin, an attorney for the National Coalition of Latino Officers and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, said her clients “really want the court to know that not all police officers agree with the unions’ position. In this case, many of the officers are advocates of transparency.”

Griffin said her clients support transparency and believe “transparency really benefits police officers.”

Some of the briefing can be downloaded here:
LEAP & NCLO’s Amici Curiae Brief
ACLU-NJ & 23 Diverse Organization Amici Curiae Brief
ACDL-NJ & Office of Public Defender’s Amici Curiae Brief
Attorney General’s Respondent Brief
Association of Former State Troopers’ Appellate Brief
State Troopers Fraternal Association Appellate Brief
State PBA Appellate Brief
PBA Local 105 Appellate Brief
Superior Officers Association Appellate Brief

For questions about this blog post, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-270-4930 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

Using OPRA for Police Transparency in New Jersey

Transparency plays a critical role in  building trust between the police and the community. When members of the public trust the police, they are more likely to follow their commands, cooperate with criminal investigations, and even advocate for more funding for police. When police resist transparency, community trust is seriously undermined. Secrecy also makes it harder to hold police departments accountable and assure that they are complying with the law and meeting the high standards that we set for them. This is why we have been involved in dozens of cases involving police records, including landmark decisions such as North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017).

Although so many law enforcement records are sadly exempt from access under OPRA, something we hope the Legislature will fix, there are several records that are publicly accessible and that shed a light on policing and have the potential to expose misconduct or wrongdoing when it occurs.

We invite you to read our prior three-part blog series titled, “How to Monitor Police Agencies.” The series covers the following topics:

We also recommend reading the wonderful article written by Andrew Ford of the Asbury Park Press, published by ProPublica, titled “I Cover Cops as an Investigative Reporter. Here are Five Ways You Can Start Holding Your Department Accountable.”

If you have a question about this blog or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-270-4930.