NEWARK, NJ — New Jersey’s highest court held remote proceedings on Monday for Newark Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge No.12’s bid to limit the scope of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight body created in response to a 2014 federal report showing that Newark Police Department had violated citizens’ rights. 

In June 2019, an appellate court restored subpoena power back to the Civilian Complaint Review Board after the FOP won an initial lower court lawsuit that claimed the entity disrupted the police department’s internal affairs and violated the Attorney General’s guidelines. 

The Civilian Complaint Review Board was officially formed in 2016, the same year the city 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 the wrought by unconstitutional policing internal failure to enforce officer accountability. 

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The 11-member board is designed to investigate public complaints against police using subpoenas and make disciplinary recommendations for officers to the director of public safety. 

Matthew Areman, representing the FOP, argued the city and the Appellate Division “simply have it wrong” when it comes to imbuing a civilian review board with subpoena power. He said that subpoenas may only issue on constitutional and legislative authority, such as a municipal council and a committee of its members. 

He also rehashed the FOP’s case that the civilian board, which is made up of chairpersons from organizations like the People’s Organization for Progress and the Newark NAACP, injects politics into the day-to-day operations of a police department.  

“What this ordinance does, even with the Appellate Division’s carved out that the CCRB’s findings must be adopted by the police director, it still has the effect of tossing the proverbial fox into the hen house by injecting a political and politically motivated body into the process of managing police discipline,” Areman said. 

The attorney representing the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, which is siding with the FOP on the basis that the ability of a civilian board to subpoena is in violation of the OAG’s guidelines, added to this claim that the Appellate Division opened police departments up to “meddling.” 

“The panel erroneously concluded that CCRBs have express, statutory authority to investigate conduct of individual officers, a role that statute expressly reserves to the appropriate authority,” attorney Daniel Bornstein said. The Appellate Division thus opened the door to the very type of political interference with police functions that the police force statute was adopted to prevent." 

Justice Stuart Rabner pushed back, asking Bornstein to read the latter part of the statute defining “appropriate authority” as including any municipal board or commission established by ordinance. 

In June, Newark Police Chief Darnell Henry told TAPinto Newark the review board wouldn’t have an impact on his day-to-day decisions.

The city’s assistant corporate counsel, Avion Benjamin, invited the justices to not only help Newark, but other municipalities mired in what she called a “profoundly broken system.”

“There is no dispute that the city of Newark has the power to enact an ordinance such as this under its policymaking authority,” Benjamin said. “This court has the opportunity to affirm the appellate court’s decision and say that if a municipality wants to use its policymaking authority to address an internal problem within its police department in order to promote transparency, accountability, and community engagement such as this, it has every right to do so.”