NJ bill allowing civilian review of police misconduct advances

New Jersey's cities and towns could set up civilian boards to investigate excessive force by police under legislation an Assembly committee approved Wednesday.

The civilian review boards are in place in police departments around the country and have been at the heart of activists' efforts to curtail police violence for years in New Jersey.

But Wednesday's legislation advanced after an August ruling by the state Supreme Court on Newark's civilian review board, and it has taken on even greater urgency after last spring and summer's Black Lives Matter protests.

The legislation advanced after hours of testimony, with many community activists as well as the mayors of the state's three biggest cities and Plainfield all testifying in support.

"We believe that a (civilian review board) will protect the integrity of an investigation, protect both the police and the public, and will allow for the powerful disinfectant known as sunshine to penetrate the process so as to add an additional layer of protection and transparency," Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp said.

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In the Newark case, the Fraternal Order of Police opposed the city's board and sued. The court handed down a mixed opinion, saying that Newark had the authority to create a board through local ordinance, but that it didn't have the power to give it subpoena power.

The legislation advancing Wednesday had initially authorized cities and towns to create boards with subpoena power, but the bill was changed in committee to make subpoena power subject to approval by state Superior Court.

Another key component of the measure was authorization for concurrent investigations by the board and police internal affairs departments.

That's important, according to Sarah Fajardo of the American Civil Liberties Union, because a concurrent — sometimes called parallel — investigation results in independent findings, and that helps foster accountability and transparency.

But the bill was changed to curtail that ability, and instead the legislation now calls for a review board to refer cases to police internal affairs. If the unit doesn't complete its investigation within 120 days, the board can begin an investigation.

The ACLU wants the 120-day waiting period removed, Fajardo said.

"Civilian review boards should be able to be able to start their investigations on their own timeline, and we are hoping to work with the sponsors to remove that provision," she said.

Pat Colligan, the head of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, said that he was still reviewing the bill changes but that he appreciated the sponsor making changes.

It's unclear which lawmaker put the amendments forward, but the sponsor, Assembly member Angela McKnight, a Democrat from Jersey City, said she opposes making subpoena power subject to court approval. She also stressed that the bill will likely go through more iterations before it's in final form.