NJFOG’s John Paff testifies on police internal affairs transparency bill

Paff at Senate Hearing S1236

January 15, 2015 – Today NJFOG trustee John Paff testified at the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing on bill S-1236, which would establish a 2-year pilot program whereby the New Jersey Attorney General’s office would assume the police internal affairs function for Edison Township. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government supports an amendment to the bill that would publicly disclose redacted versions of the internal affairs files created by the Attorney General’s office during the 2-year period. Internal affairs files are not currently accessible by the public.


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John Paff’s commentary…

Presently, the Attorney General’s Guidelines on police internal affairs (on-line here) only provides for two types of public records regarding the police internal affairs process.

Page 42 of the PDF states, in essence, that everything is to be kept from the public except for the statistical reports and a “brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of 10 days or more was assessed to an agency member.” (See “Requirement 10 on page 44) An example of the statistical report, called SalemIA1.pdf, is attached. The report only contains numbers and the “brief synopsis” must, per Requirement 10, have the names of the complainants and subject officers suppressed.

So, a member of the public who wants to find out whether or not the local police department is doing a good job disciplining its officers when they do wrong has no real way of knowing what’s going on. A person looking at SalemIA1.pdf would know only that 50 complaints were received during 2014; that 48 resulted in either exoneration, not being sustained, being ruled unfounded or administratively dismissal and that only 3 complaints resulted in internal discipline. And, if one considers that the “other rule violation” complaints are usually brought by police supervisors against police officers (things like absenteeism, tardiness and insubordination), one can sort of surmise that probably 100% of the complaints brought by citizens (i.e. everything other than rule violations) ended up with no discipline being imposed against the officer.

It could very well be that the Salem Sheriff’s Office is doing a very diligent job and that none of the officers are guilty. But, it’s unreasonable to expect citizens to believe in the veracity of a system that they cannot see operate. It’s like the police are saying “Don’t worry, we investigated ourselves and found no wrongdoing.” That’s not a very satisfying answer. Citizens, especially in New Jersey where corruption is regrettably common, should have a healthy skepticism of unverifiable claims by government officials. And, since police have a unique role in our society, i.e. the lawful ability to arrest and to use force–even lethal force, the public needs to to be able to verify that officers who do wrong are being properly disciplined.

We wouldn’t tolerate our Mayor and Council saying “You don’t need to see the municipal budget–trust us, we’re taking care of everything on your behalf.” Similarly, we shouldn’t tolerate our police chief saying “You don’t need to see our internal affairs files–trust us, we’re making sure that the officers who do wrong are being properly disciplined.”

Senator Barnes’ bill, in its present form, is step in the right direction because it puts Edison’s police department’s internal affairs function under the control of a different government agency. Having the Attorney General review Edison Officers’ conduct will more likely return an objective result than having the investigation conducted by someone who works with the officer. But, the bill in its present form doesn’t allow the public to perform its crucially important oversight role.

The amendments offered by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which have been endorsed by Senator Barnes, state:

In order to address public’s loss of confidence in the internal affairs process identified in the findings above, simultaneously with the issuance of the report to the Governor and Legislature, the Attorney General shall also publicly disclose the internal affairs complaints, investigative reports and internal affairs dispositions for each internal affairs matter that was processed during the two year pilot program. The documents publicly disclosed shall have redacted from them the names and identifying information of the officers under investigation, the complainants and others whose identities need to be protected. The Attorney General shall also redact any other information from these records for which disclosure would jeopardize legitimate confidentiality provisions and personal privacy interests more than disclosure would help the public understand and judge the efficacy of the pilot program and the internal affairs process. The Attorney General shall construe his power to redact narrowly against confidentiality and in favor of public disclosure, and will describe each redaction in an accompanying redaction index, which will also be publicly disclosed.

Each redaction shall state its “specific basis” and the Attorney General shall also explain in the index “each suppression in a manner that ‘without revealing information itself privileged or protected, will enable other parties to assess the applicability of the privilege or protection.’ Paff v. New Jersey Department of Labor, Board of Review, 379 N.J. Super. 346, 354-55 (2005) (quoting R. 4:10-2(e))”.

We believe that this amendment will make a good bill even better by enabling the public to review and determine the reasonableness of the Attorney General’s disciplinary determinations. It will accomplish this important objective while still enabling the Attorney General to suppress information that would, if disclosed, truly jeopardize an important police function or invade an individual’s privacy.

Once law enforcement officials, legislators, and the public are able to see, after the pilot period concludes, that police internal affairs effectiveness is not undermined by reasonable public disclosure, we are hopeful that enhanced public disclosure regarding police disciplinary matters will become the norm in New Jersey.