NEWARK, NJ — Nearly six months after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against Newark in its bid to give its Civilian Complaint Review Board the authority to subpoena information, the city is bringing its fight to the highest court in the nation.
On Jan. 19, Newark filed court papers seeking the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of New Jersey’s decision, which was issued back in August 2020. State justices issued a 6-1 decision to strip the CCRB of its ability to issue subpoenas and conduct parallel investigations with the Newark Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit.
“During every step of this journey, I promised we will fight to win this case until all judicial and legislative options are exhausted,” Mayor Ras Baraka said. “In the long, tortured history of police brutality against Black Americans, we have learned the only possible guarantee of full police transparency and accountability lies in the hands of the people they are sworn to protect.
The fight for a CCRB in Newark is decades in the making and one that Baraka has had a hand in since his years as a young activist. Since passing a 2016 ordinance imbuing its CCRB with powers unprecedented in New Jersey, the city has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12, the police union that represents officers of the Newark Police Division.
The 2016 ordinance authorized the CCRB to conduct its own investigations of civilian complaints of police misconduct, review the Newark Police Division’s Internal Affairs Unit’s investigations of police misconduct and make disciplinary recommendations to the City Public Safety Director. The FOP argued these oversight abilities were in violation of the New Jersey Attorney General’s guidelines and would inject politics into the daily operations of the NPD.
It also cited concerns over interference with NPD’s chief and Internal Affairs Unit. The argument was struck down in the Appellate Division, prompting the FOP to appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled in its favor.
The CCRB was established in 2016 after a 2014 federal report determined the NPD had a pattern of civil rights violations. The same year, the city also entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ's investigation also resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor to help undo the damage wrought by unconstitutional policing and internal failure to enforce officer accountability.
FOP President James Stewart could not be reached for comment but has previously expressed that Newark should quit while it’s ahead.
But officials, especially Baraka, show no signs of backing down and vow to explore every avenue to victory in this case.
“We must have muscular CCRBs with real power to investigate, hear testimony and review Internal Affairs documents to assure equal justice under the law,” Mayor Baraka added. “After the events of last year, including the wanton deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we must have CCRBs with the legal authority to probe criminal police acts.”
Lawyers for Newark plan to argue that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision fails to uphold the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which states that the state must not deprive a person of life, liberty or property or deny any person within its jurisdiction equal protection under the law.
Newark also refutes the idea that the Attorney General’s guidelines should not limit municipal ability to legislate.
“This is simply about equal treatment and equal protection under the law,” said Kenyatta Stewart, Newark’s Corporation Counsel. “We have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court because this is about federal law and rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. We just saw during the Capitol insurrection how white protestors were treated differently by police than the Black Lives Matter protestors this summer.”
In conjunction with its U.S. Supreme Court bid, Newark is collaborating with state legislators to pass legislation the allows municipalities the power to create CCRBs with teeth. An bill from Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31) seeks to establish a CCRB in every municipality and state, but without the powers, Newark hopes to push forward.
Baraka said in August his team is working with the Essex and Passaic County delegations to combine their own proposed legislation with McNight's, and so far has sponsorship from Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumpter (D-Bergen), McKnight, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex) and state Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex).