Tag Archives: police

2020 Transparency Year in Review

Happy New Year! The year 2020 was a year unlike any other. As we look back at transparency issues that arose over the past year, we hope that this blog finds our readers healthy and well.

Pandemic Creates Transparency Hurdles

Transparency was front and center in New Jersey in 2020, although sometimes it was the lack of transparency that was the focus.

On March 9, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 103 to declare a Public Health Emergency in New Jersey. Days later, the Legislature rushed to amend the Open Public Meetings Act (OPRA) so that public agencies would not have to comply with the statute’s seven-day deadline during the pandemic. As a result, many requestors have found their OPRA requests stalled for weeks or months with no response. Given that Governor Murphy will likely continue to extend the Public Health Emergency declarations for quite some time, requestors can expect access to be slow for many more months.

Another major transparency hurdle in 2020 was the Emergency Health Powers Act. The 2005 law is designed to give the Governor vast powers during a public health crisis, but it also contains an expansive exemption that sates: “Any correspondence, records, reports and medical information made, maintained, received or filed pursuant to this act shall not be considered a public or government record under [OPRA].” N.J.S.A. 26:13-26. Several media outlets reported that the State was using the exemption to keep important information from the public, such as records about which medical facilities lacked protective gear or information about hospital capacity and supplies at nursing homes.

Police Use of Force Records

Access to police use of force records continues to be a challenge, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2017 decision in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), which held that such records should be accessible to the public.

In January, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Rivera v. Township of Bloomfield and held that police body-worn camera videos are subject to OPRA. The video at issue recorded police shooting and killing a man in Bloomfield in August 2017.

In February, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Digital First Media v. Ewing Township, 462 N.J. Super. 389 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, The Trentonian newspaper sought a copy of a Use of Force Report (UFR) that related to force that Ewing police officers used against a teenager. Although the trial court held that the UFR could not be released due to a statute that exempts records relating to juveniles charged as delinquent, the Appellate Division granted our appeal and ruled that the UFR must be released with the juvenile’s name redacted. Ewing Township was also required to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.

In October, we published a blog detailing how the State rarely complies with Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2019-4, which requires disclosure of videos of police deadly force incidents within 20 days. Per our count, only one video had been released within the 20-day deadline all year.

Transparency in Police Discipline

In 2020, there were some positive advances in transparency regarding police discipline on a policy level, but also a mixed bag when it came to judicial opinions on this issue.

In Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police, the requestor sought the name of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” for “engaging in racially offensive behavior.” Although both lower courts denied access to the name, the Supreme Court granted certification and was set to review the case. In mid-June, the Attorney General’s office reversed course, granted access to the name, paid the requestor’s legal fees, and issued Law Enforcement Directives 2020-5 and 2020-6. The Directives require disclosure of the names of officers who receive “major discipline,” information that had never been disclosed before.

Shortly after the Directives were issued, several police unions filed challenges and argued that the Attorney General lacked the authority to compel such disclosures. In October 2020, the Appellate Division upheld the Directives. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court granted certification and oral argument is set for March 2021. In the interim, the Directives are stayed and no disclosures have been made.

In mid-June, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court decision that had compelled access to internal affairs reports relating to the former Police Director of the City of Elizabeth Police Department who had resigned after it came to light that he used “racist and misogynistic slurs.” The Appellate Division concluded that internal affairs reports are confidential pursuant to the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy and cannot be released even pursuant to the common law right of access. A petition for certification is pending.

In late June, a bill was introduced in the Senate to make all police disciplinary records subject to OPRA, including police internal affairs files. Although Senate Bill No. 2656 has not yet been heard in a committee, more than 100 organizations have endorsed it. New Jersey is one of only 21 states that treat all internal affairs records confidential.

During a July 15th public hearing before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal seemed to embrace greater transparency in internal affairs investigations, stating: “[W]hen it comes to the transparency of police disciplinary records, New Jersey needs to end its outlier status and move towards greater openness. We can and should be a national leader on this issue.”

In early December, the Attorney General released the internal affairs files of Philip Seidle, a former Neptune police officer who shot and killed his wife in 2015. The Asbury Park Press had been fighting in court to gain access to the files for several years. Its case remains pending as to whether the newspaper is entitled to legal fees and whether such files are subject to access under OPRA.

Other Significant Transparency Decisions

There were a few OPRA decisions by the Appellate Division this year, at least two of which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year.

In February, the Appellate Division ruled in Bozzi v. Borough of Roselle Park, 462 N.J. Super. 415 (App. Div. 2020), that there was no privacy interest that precluded a commercial requestor from obtaining a list of dog license holders so that he could send them solicitations for his electric fence installation service. The Supreme Court granted certification in a separate case that reached the same conclusion, Bozzi v. City of Jersey City, and the case is pending.

In June, the Appellate Division held in Simmons v. Mercado, 464 N.J. Super. 77 (App. Div. 2020), that complaints and summonses are not “government records” that are subject to OPRA because the judiciary (which is not subject to OPRA) is the custodian of records and not the police departments who enter them into the judiciary’s computer system. The Supreme Court granted certification and the case is pending.

In September, the Appellate Division issued a disappointing opinion in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County, 465 N.J. Super. 11 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, our client learned that a county corrections officer had faced disciplinary charges for “engaging in sex” with two inmates and bringing them contraband, but that because the officer agreed to cooperate with an investigation he was allowed to retire in good standing with a pension pursuant to a separation agreement. In response to an OPRA request our client filed, Cumberland County stated that the officer was “terminated” and it denied access to the agreement. The trial court ruled that the County violated OPRA by falsely stating the officer was terminated when he was really permitted to retire in good standing and it compelled access to the agreement. Unfortunately, the Appellate Division reversed. Although it agreed that the County had not been truthful about the officer’s reason for separation, it found that the agreement was exempt under OPRA’s personnel record exemption. It remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether access should be granted under the common law, but the case is currently stayed while a petition for certification is pending in the Supreme Court.

In December 2020, John Paff reported that Cumberland County settled a lawsuit relating to the same officer for $150,000, in which a woman inmate had alleged that he and other corrections officers had sexually abused her.

The danger of the Libertarians decision is that it will permit public agencies to enter into agreements with employees and keep the details of those agreements a secret. This deprives the public of the ability to determine whether the agreement was reasonable and advanced the public’s interests. It will also likely allow the exchange of money without any public oversight whatsoever, something that is highly problematic.

In November, Governor Murphy signed A-1649 into law. Commonly known as “Daniel’s Law,” it exempts the addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from OPRA. It is unclear how public agencies will be able to comply with this law since there is no central list of such addresses to cross reference.

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

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).

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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