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In re Attorney General Law Enforcement Directives 2020-5 and 2020-6

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: New Jersey Supreme Court

Date Filed: Dec. 15, 2020

Background: In response to the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests demanding increased police accountability, New Jersey’s attorney general issued a directive on June 15, 2020, requiring every law enforcement agency in the state to publish annual reports summarizing all complaints in which officers faced serious disciplinary action, including the name of the officer, the nature of the misconduct and the sanction imposed. A few days later, the attorney general issued another directive requiring certain law enforcement agencies to release similar information regarding officer misconduct cases dating back to January 2000.

Unions representing current and former New Jersey law enforcement officers challenged the directives in court, arguing, in part, that the benefits of publicizing the complaints do not outweigh the costs to officer privacy. But a New Jersey appeals court ruled in October that the attorney general acted within his authority in issuing the directives.

Our Position: The New Jersey Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s decision.

  • Access to the names of law enforcement officers sanctioned for serious disciplinary violations allows the news media to fulfill its essential role of informing the public about the performance of public employees.
  • New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act does not bar the attorney general from issuing the directives.

Bruce S. Rosen of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, P.C. served as the Reporters Committee’s local counsel for this brief.

Quote: “As recent news reporting from around the country demonstrates, access to the names of law enforcement officers sanctioned for serious disciplinary violations allows journalists to report on the conduct of police officers, the culture of law enforcement, and the steps being taken to hold public servants accountable to the communities they serve. This reporting provides public oversight of policing, fosters accountability of law enforcement, and builds trust.”

Related: Over the summer, New York lawmakers repealed Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, a controversial provision long used to shield police misconduct records from public scrutiny. The repeal set the stage for court battles between police and firefighters unions and those who seek to improve transparency around public officer misconduct. As of November 2020, the Reporters Committee reported, courts had largely affirmed the need for greater transparency in three cases, siding with arguments RCFP attorneys laid out in friend-of-the-court briefs.

In October, the Reporters Committee urged top lawmakers in the New Jersey Legislature to prioritize and enact S. 2656, which would classify law enforcement disciplinary records as government records subject to public access, as well as mandate retention of the records.

In January, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 16 news media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the New Jersey Supreme Court to order the New Jersey State Police to reveal the name of an officer fired for “racially offensive behavior.”