State Police refuses to release public records on troopers involved in Radazz Hearns shooting

NJFOG’s John Paff is quoted in this article about the secrecy surrounding records concerning the officers who shot Trenton juvenile Radazz Hearns. – NJFOG

The Trentonian
Oct. 27, 2015
By Isaac Avilucea
(full article here, partially re-posted below)

Looking to maintain a shroud of secrecy regarding information about three police officers involved in the shooting of a Trenton teen, the New Jersey State Police this week refused to release records showing whether two state troopers had been disciplined or had fired their weapons prior to a near-fatal encounter with Radazz Hearns in August.

State Police records custodian Thomas Preston denied The Trentonian’s requests under the state’s Open Public Records Act, saying the newspaper’s “interests in the obtaining these records” were “substantially outweighed by the several longstanding public interests in maintaining the confidentiality of personnel records,” which State Police contend are exempt from disclosure.

The decision to not release records on State Police troopers Doug Muraglia and Blair Astbury has incensed critics of law enforcement and government transparency advocates who say they are critical in helping examine the officers’ actions on the night of Aug. 7, when Hearns was shot seven times in the buttocks and the back of the legs.

Hearns was later charged with aggravated assault and weapons offenses after the officers claimed he pointed a handgun at them. A .22-caliber handgun was found 12 hours later, 151 feet from where Hearns collapsed. It was just one of numerous discrepancies that led to further scrutiny of the police officers’ actions.

“Citizens, who are allegedly in control of the government, need to know that officers who abuse their authority are being held accountable,” said John Paff, chairman of the Open Government Advocacy Project for the New Jersey Libertarian Party. “The absence of a transparent internal affairs process makes effective citizen control impossible. It’s foolish to believe that police departments can effectively and fairly discipline their own ranks in secret. I seriously doubt that our legislators are going to bring any transparency to the process. They’re too busy currying favor with the police unions.”

Astbury, the cousin of troubled Trenton Police officer Jason Astbury, was the driver of a silver unmarked van that pulled up on Hearns and two friends on Aug. 7, when they were walking down Louise Lane near the intersection of Calhoun Street.

Muraglia and Mercer County Sheriff’s officer James Udijohn have been identified publicly in news reports as the shooters despite attempts by the Attorney General’s office to keep their identities under wraps.

Following a monthslong battle, Paff has sued the Attorney General’s office claiming it violated state sunshine laws by not releasing or confirming the identities of the police officers, which were leaked not long after the AG’s office had asked Paff for an extension on his records request.

Richard Rivera, a civil rights advocate and former police officer, said he is involved in a court battle with State Police over hundreds of pages of state troopers’ use-of-force reports. As recently as May, he obtained copies of use-of-force reports where names of troopers were redacted, making them of little value to the public in assessing troopers’ conduct.

“It’s paramount for the public to understand police use of force and who the officers are who are using force upon us,” said Rivera, chairman of the state Human Relations Council. “It’s a matter of saving lives, both public and police. The disciplinary history of officers is inherently confidential. We need a system in New Jersey that includes civilian oversight so that officers engaged in questionable action are more closely scrutinized.”

Officials’ actions have done little to assuage concerns voiced by Hearns’ supporters who say their calls for increased transparency over the shooting have been met with resistance from law enforcement agencies claiming they are concerned about police officers’ safety and the sanctity of an ongoing investigation.

That led a prominent leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, Shaun King, to accuse police of a willful “cover-up” of the Hearns shooting.

“Frederick Douglas said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will,’” said Rev. Lukata Mjumbe of the United Mercer Interfaith Organization, a faith-based coalition waging a public pressure campaign to get answers about the shooting. “We’ve seen that throughout history. We’re seeing that today. The past is prologue. None of it is surprising.”

Recent requests

The office of Acting Attorney General John Hoffman office this week also denied a separate public records request for a roster listing the names law enforcement officials assigned to a special team of investigators that reviews shootings and other incidents involving State Police and county law enforcement personnel.

The AG’s office acknowledged its Shooting Response Team, which is involved in the Hearns shooting investigation, is comprised of 11 deputy attorneys general, 32 detectives from the Division of Criminal Justice as well as 11 detectives from the State Police Major Crimes Unit.

As part of its coverage of the Hearns shooting, The Trentonian sought the records to provide a comprehensive accounting of the SRT after critics questioned its lack of transparency and said it is improper for troopers to investigate fellow troopers.

The state Attorney General’s office claims in documents obtained by government transparency guru John Paff the officers fired 15 shots on Hearns – seven rounds from a .40-caliber handgun and eight rounds from a 9 mm handgun. That was three fewer rounds than the 18 shots cited in a Trentonian investigation, which found 11 bullet holes in residences on Dunham Street, in addition to the seven that struck Hearns.

The city’s ShotSpotter system, which covers 3 square miles of Trenton, picked up 14 shots, according to records obtained by The Trentonian.

Continue reading HERE.