Opinion: New Jersey needs local civilian review boards with subpoena power

New Jerseyans need to demand legislative changes to the process of reviewing complaints of police misconduct throughout the state. Currently, municipal and county law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors, and the state’s Attorney General have the power to conduct internal affairs investigations regarding police misconduct and determine whether and how to discipline individual officers. It is natural to doubt the veracity of the results of an investigation of possible wrongdoing by a government institution and its resulting conclusions when the government institution accused of wrongdoing is conducting the investigation itself. Understandably, New Jerseyans question whether the internal affairs process in our state, in which law enforcement investigates itself, may be trusted. To improve public trust, the time has come for municipalities and counties in New Jersey to have the power to establish civilian complaint review boards (“CCRBs”) that have subpoena power to review police operations and conduct.

New Jersey Statutes (“N.J.S.”) Title 40A. Municipalities and Counties, 40A § 14-118 allows municipalities and counties to appoint boards to conduct investigations of police operations and conduct, to delegate powers of inquiry to them as governing bodies deem necessary, and to conduct hearings as authorized by law. The Newark City Council adopted Municipal Ordinance 6PSF-B, which established its CCRB, to address complaints filed by citizens against Newark police. The Newark City Council delegated investigative powers and policy responsibilities to its CCRB and authorized it to make recommendations to Newark’s public safety director regarding discipline for individual officers.

However, the Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge 12 challenged the validity of Municipal Ordinance 6PSF-B in court. In August 2020, in Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge 12 v. City of Newark, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the Newark City Council’s conferring of subpoena power on the Newark CCRB was invalid. Specifically, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that “power of inquiry” that the council delegated to the CCRB under N.J.S. Title 40A § 14-118, as that statute is written, does not include “subpoena power.”

Addressing the New Jersey Supreme Court’s determination that subpoena power is not included in the power of inquiry that municipal and county governing bodies may currently confer under N.J.S. Title 40A § 14-118, legislation that specifically provides for the creation of CCRBs with the power to subpoena witnesses and documentary evidence has been introduced in the New Jersey State Legislature. Assemblywoman Angela Mcknight (LD-31), Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (LD-35), and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (LD-35) are the primary sponsors of Assembly Bill A4656, which “would authorize municipalities and counties to establish civilian review boards to review police operations and conduct.” A4656’s companion bill S2963 was introduced in the State Senate and sponsored by Senator Ronald Rice (LD-28) and Senator Shirley Turner (LD-15). Under S4656/S2963, “these boards would serve to foster transparency, fairness, and equality in policing practices and policies, which in turn will help promote positive relations between police and the local communities they serve.”

A4656/S2963 provides that the composition of CCRBs “would be residents of the municipality or county, as applicable, who are qualified persons with training or experience in community relations, civil rights, law enforcement, juvenile justice, sociology, or other relevant fields.” Also, CCRB members would be required to take a training course within six months of appointment.

Regarding officers’ privacy rights, A4656/S2963 “all records made, maintained, or kept on file by a civilian review board” would be “confidential and unavailable to the public while an investigation is pending,” and “all personal identifying information contained in all records made, maintained, or kept on file by a civilian review board” would be confidential at all times.

You may be wondering what you as a citizen can do to impress upon the New Jersey State Legislature that A4656/S2963 should be adopted as law. I would suggest writing letters to Senate President Steven Sweeney (SenSweeney@njleg.org), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (AsmCoughlin@njleg.org), and Gov. Phil Murphy (Constituent.Relations@nj.gov), and request that they make adopting A4656/S2963 a legislative priority.

Providing municipalities and counties with the power to create local civilian complaint review boards that have subpoena power will improve public trust. In the name of equity and justice, the New Jersey State Legislature should pass A4656/S2963 and Gov. Murphy should sign it in to law in 2021.

Josh Fine served as a member of the Borough Council of Highland Park from 2015-20 and is a member of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition.