|NMU||NEW JERSEY||Freedom of Information||May 4, 2000|
Records of off-duty police work must be disclosed
- A state court found that common law tradition developed by courts, but not the state open records act, required that a patrolman’s union release information it held on police officers’ off-duty work.
Although employment records from off-duty police officers are not covered by the Right to Know Law, they are nonetheless public under the common law tradition, a state court ruled April 19.
The Superior Court in Paterson also ruled that the employment records are public even though they are maintained by the patrolman’s union as part of an agreement with the police chief.
The chief of police in Paterson requires officers to get approval before engaging in any off-duty employment, including work in security, traffic control or investigations. According to department policy, an officer must file a report with the chief that identifies the name and address of any potential employer, the nature of the work to be performed, the hours to be worked and the compensation to be received.
If the officer obtains employment on his own, he is to file the report directly with the chief, but if the officer is instead given an assignment through the local Police Benevolent Association no report needs to be filed. In effect, most officers obtain off-duty work assignments through the patrolman’s union.
As part of an investigation into the employment practices of off-duty officers in the Patterson Police Department in late 1999, The Herald News of West Patterson requested the union turn over documents concerning its job assignments to off-duty officers. The union initially rejected the request, saying that it was a private organization and not subject to the Right to Know Law. After a second request, the union decided to release 2,259 pages of documents, which the court later characterized as “largely unresponsive.”
The newspaper filed suit in February 2000, arguing that records about off-duty employment were public under both the Right to Know Law and the common law. The definition of “public record” under the Right to Know Law was to be narrowly construed, the court ruled, and the requested documents did not meet the definition because state law did not require that they be created or maintained. The court, however, did decide that the records were public under the common law because the union was acting as an agent of the police department when it assisted officers in finding off-duty jobs.
(Gremac, Inc. v. City of Paterson; Media Counsel: Arlene Turinchak, Somerset)
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press