NEWARK, NJ - A state appellate court today gave subpoena power back to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate alleged police misconduct, but ruled that any decisions the board makes are not binding.
The city has been fighting to uphold the Civilian Complaint Review Board since 2016, when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge. No. 12 filed a lawsuit over it. The police union argued the board interfered with the police department's internal affairs and state Attorney General guidelines.
The appellate division said the lower court’s order that stopped the board from issuing subpoenas prevented it from investigating. It also invalidated the binding nature of the board’s findings since it would have rendered the internal affairs department’s decision’s obsolete. The board may now only make disciplinary recommendations to the city’s public safety director.
Mayor Ras Baraka said he expected the board’s creation to be challenged in court and noted that a majority of officers do an "outstanding job." He called the court’s partial reversal a “landmark” and “historic” decision that could possibly impact other municipalities.
“The review board also has its findings, and they're public findings,” Baraka told reporters at city hall. “If they contradict with what the internal affairs comes up with, obviously there's a public discourse about that. That's really what we intended to do - is create transparency around what's going on.
“It creates discourse and discussion around the processes that are happening in the police department and how they arrived at those findings.”
City council passed a Civilian Complaint Review Board ordinance about three years ago that allowed Newark residents to investigate and participate in the resolution of complaints against the city's police force. The board would have the ability to conduct independent investigations of complaints against police made by the public.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board was created after the city and the U.S. Department of Justice formulated a consent decree. The decree was created in 2016 after a federal investigation found the police department's internal affairs system knew about issues, but failed to address them.
FOP Lodge No. 12 President James Stewart, Jr. said Newark Police Department has made strides in professional standards, training and accountability ever since the DOJ’s investigation.
“The FOP continues, however, to believe that granting subpoena powers to a group of individuals violates the New Jersey Constitution, as well as previous court decisions,” Stewart said in a statement. “...[W]e are already weighing our appeal options to ensure the rights of our members are protected moving forward.”
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed a brief in court that said the city exceeded its authority when creating the review board. Baraka, in turn, rebuked the attorney general.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office said the court’s decision was still being reviewed and had no further comment on the outcome.
The city’s public safety director has the authority to make final disciplinary determinations after internal affairs completes its investigation. The police chief handles supervision within the department.
Police Chief Darnell Henry told TAPinto Newark the review board wouldn’t have an impact on his day-to-day decisions. Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose called the review board “long overdue."
"Oversight isn't a bad thing,” Ambrose said after today’s press conference. “We're transparent. The majority of our officers go out and do their job and the ones that don't do the job, they have to worry."
Civilian Complaint Review Board Chairman Rick Robinson said the board hasn’t been able to review any complaints as the lawsuit wound through the courts. He said “a lot” of complaints have been received by the board, and that residents were told the entity would follow up with them.
“It's nothing against the police,” said Robinson, who is also the criminal justice chairman at the NAACP’s Newark chapter. “The police are magnificent. It is now a measure where we can actually eliminate some of the bad apples that have been associated with this great fraternal organization and we can be more productive.”
First Assistant Corporation Counsel Avion Benjamin, who represented the city in the case, said there were times the law department was unsure about the review board. But, Benjamin said, the mayor pushed to have it despite the uphill legal battle.
“I am absolutely proud that I was part of making history in this great city,” Benjamin said. “Because that's what this decision did. It still may not be over because the FOP has every right - should they decide to petition for [certiorari]. But from now, until they do that, and until the Supreme Court grants cert, we're going to celebrate this decision.”