After New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that all New Jersey law enforcement agencies would be required to publicly identify officers who commit serious disciplinary violations starting later this year, Maplewood elected officials say they are looking for more guidance from the AG on what this means on the local level — in particular, with regard to police brutality incidents of July 5, 2016 for which six officers were disciplined.
“We are reaching out to the AG’s office for guidance and with questions (a finalized Directive on the AG website isn’t available yet) and digesting all of these new directives. We will also be looking into this via our Community Board on Police,” Maplewood Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis told Village Green on June 16.
“The state of play in Trenton is evolving on this topic,” wrote Maplewood Township Committee Public Safety Chair Greg Lembrich to Village Green on June 26, “The State AG is issuing guidance to counties and municipalities, some of which we will need clarification on to address our specific issues here. We would favor greater transparency with the public, within the law.”
“As you know, we have been constrained even in what we can know ourselves, much less what information we can release to the public,” continued Lembrich. “Once we get a clearer sense of what will be permitted under the new guidance, we can determine what steps we may take to advocate for fewer restrictions on disclosure.”
As reported by northjersey.com, “Grewal’s order, which applies to all state, county and municipal agencies, says they must publish an annual list of officers who were fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days because of disciplinary violations.” Advocates for police reform are calling this a “good first step but one that falls short of where the state should be.”
Even as the five-member Maplewood Township Committee as well as Police Chief Jim DeVaul have issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks, lingering community distrust over the events of July 5, 2016 have cast a shadow on the town’s efforts to move forward.
On July 5, 2016, local teens were herded out of town by police after the town fireworks, resulting in a skirmish on the Irvington border in which three Maplewood residents and one South Orange resident were arrested. The 16-year-old Maplewood resident, Jason McDougall, was punched by police and kicked in the head by one officer as he lay face down on the ground being handcuffed (McDougall later sued the Township which settled the suit in April 2019). The release of video, audio and police reports after a year of open public record requests caused an outcry in the community, resulting in the retirement of the police chief and a captain, and the creation of a new Community Board on Police.
However, the names of six officers disciplined for their actions that night were never released, and none of the officers were fired. Recently, a petition calling for the release of the six officers’ names as well as their discipline records has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.*
In public statements, Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee, Deputy Mayor Dafis and Lembrich have lamented the inability to provide more transparency regarding police discipline and have indicated the desire to advocate for change in Trenton.
In comments at the TC meeting on June 2, Lembrich said, “We have seen instances in our own community in just the last few years where unnecessary force has been used, and our hands have been tied in trying to address it.”
He continued, “Local police departments can’t even move forward with internal affairs proceedings and discipline of officers until the prosecutor’s office completes its investigation, which often takes months. Then departments start an internal affairs process that is not only completely outside of public view, but also largely confidential even from local elected officials who are ultimately responsible for representing the community the officers have sworn to protect. And while there have been some reforms that now allow other law enforcement agencies to access, albeit in a limited matter, the disciplinary history of officers who may be seeking employment with a new department, this information remains largely hidden from the communities those officers serve.”
[*Full disclosure: The petition calling for the release of the six officer’s names and discipline records was created by Susanna Mann, a rising Columbia High School junior and the daughter of Village Green co-founder Mary Mann. Susanna created the petition after hearing Maplewood TC member Greg Lembrich discuss the issue during the June 2 Township Committee meeting.]