Unions Win Delay, Ask Court to Stop NJ Plan to Name and Shame Cops
TRENTON — One of the unions representing state troopers has asked a judge to stop the attorney general's plan to publicly name officers who were fired or suspended for more than five days at a time in the past 20 years.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last week announced that the State Police would release a list by July 15 of troopers disciplined in 430 cases. He also directed all law enforcement agencies to release the names and summaries of major disciplinary cases dating back 12 months no later than the end of the year.
"For decades, New Jersey has not disclosed the identities of law enforcement officers who commit serious disciplinary violations," Grewal said last week. "Today, we end the practice of protecting the few to the detriment of the many. Today, we recommit ourselves to building a culture of transparency and accountability in law enforcement."
Police unions, however, have opposed this move and already have secured one victory in their fight to stop the state's efforts at greater police transparency in the wake of national reckoning with racism and police misconduct.
The Public Employment Relations Commission this week halted Paterson's plan to release 20 years of their police department's disciplinary records of active and retired cops.
"While the public has been led to believe that issues involving 'major discipline' are serious violations of the public trust the reality is that the term is misleading," the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association said in a joint statement with the Paterson PBA and the Paterson Police Superior Officers Association. "Releasing this information serves no public safety benefit and puts the lives, livelihoods and welfare of their members and families at undue risk."
On Thursday, meanwhile, the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Mercer County seeking a judge's order to stop the July release of trooper's names.
The union says that releasing the names would violate longstanding agreements to keep disciplinary records confidential and that identifying troopers would lead to harassment of their families or exposing victims of domestic violence.
The lawsuit points to the case of Sgt. Randall Wetzel, the trooper who shot and killed 23-year-old Poughkeepsie, New York man Maurice Gordon on the Garden State Parkway on May 23. The trooper became one of the first officers that the Attorney General's Office publicly identified this month in an about-face on past practice of not identifying officers involved in shootings.
The lawsuit said that Wetzel became a target of anti-police activists and the words "murderer" and "ACAB," which stands for "all cops are bastards," was chalked on his driveway.
The lawsuit also raises other potential problems with releasing names, including deterring troopers from voluntarily coming forward to seek drug or alcohol treatment and perhaps leading people in one of the 90 municipalities were troopers provide police service "to delay or prevent the Trooper from entering their home despite the need for emergent action and wait for another who could be miles away."
The lawsuit says that many troopers have agreed not to contest disciplinary charges and accepted punishment because they knew that the case would be kept confidential. Disciplined officers have only been named publicly when they've appealed the job charges to an administrative law judge, a labor board or Superior Court.
In a joint statement announcing the litigation on Thursday, the State Police unions along with the New Jersey State PBA, the Jersey City Police Police Officers Benevolent Association and the New Jersey State Fraternal Order of Police said that the list of names would also include troopers who have died in the line of duty.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh stood by the city's planned release of the records.
"My recent directive, which was made in consultation with the Attorney General, was aimed at offering full transparency to residents at a time when trust is needed more than ever between civilians and law enforcement," Sayegh said in a written statement.
"I maintain that I am on the right side of this issue and I look forward to continued work that will bring our community together."
Paterson would have been the first law enforcement agency to comply with Grewal's directive.
The State PBA and its local chapter also said that releasing 20 years of "misleading data" about officers who may long ago have retired or active officers with an "otherwise stellar record" would amount to a data dump that doesn't tell a complete story.
The police union also said that releasing such an extensive list of officers who've faced major discipline for whatever reason would put law enforcement and their families at risk of "public shaming for the indefensible actions of a few bad cops."