NEWARK – The largest city in the state of New Jersey, with over 280,000 residents, has approved an ordinance to create a municipal identification card program for all city residents, making it the first municipality in New Jersey to do so. The Newark Municipal Council voted unanimously to create a city-issued ID eligible to all residents aged 14 and older. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is expected to sign the ordinance soon.
The municipal ID card will benefit all residents of Newark, including marginalized communities such as immigrants, people with disabilities, the young and elderly, formerly-incarcerated people, the homeless, and transgender individuals.
The measure was backed by the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. The ACLU-NJ, a member of the alliance's executive committee, praised the leadership of the coalition and the city.
“Newark's ID card program is a bold step forward for public safety and civil rights,” said American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “It will help ensure all city residents have equal access to basic services and police protection. Newark’s tremendous leadership in promoting compassion and advancing justice should inspire municipalities across the state to follow its lead. We look forward to continuing to work with Newark to ensure that all residents—regardless of immigration status, gender identity, age, criminal history, or housing status—are able to use their Newark IDs to protect their rights and improve their lives.”
While Newark is the first municipality in the state to issue this form of identification, other cities around the country, including New Haven, New York City, and San Francisco, have instituted similar programs.
Highlights of the ID program include:
“This is a good day for Newark residents who are already part of our communities but lack documentation,” said Kevin Brown, 32BJ Vice President and New Jersey State Director. “Newark’s Municipal ID program will give immigrants, the homeless and other disenfranchised Newarkers more opportunities to improve their lives and build a bright future for their families.”
This form of identification provides peace of mind to residents in the city who are unable to obtain other forms of identification, including undocumented immigrants.
"The municipal IDs are a great step towards justice for immigrants, who work so hard but often need to stay in the shadows of fear," said Rev. Moacir Weirich, pastor of St. Stephen's Grace Community Church and a member of Faith In New Jersey. "With the IDs people will feel more secure and welcomed into our community where they live, work, and contribute."
Lacking a government-issued identification can discourage people from contacting police to report crimes or from participating as witnesses in criminal investigations. Victims of crimes are less likely to be identified, which can also hinder notification of their loved ones.
“The members and supporters of NJ Communities United applaud Mayor Baraka as he takes this step to ensure economic opportunities and public safety for immigrant families in Newark,” said Trina Scordo, Executive Director, New Jersey Communities United. “It is our hope that Newark will be the model for municipalities across the state in establishing human rights and dignity for immigrant communities.”
The most common form of government-issued identification is a driver's license. Both driver's licenses and non-driver state identification cards require proof of immigration status, preventing undocumented immigrants from obtaining them. Immigrants living in Newark will now be eligible to use a combination of documents verified by the City to obtain an official ID and use it in their everyday lives in Newark.
“We applaud the Mayor, the Council and the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs and Diaspora’s leadership,” said Alix Nguefack, Detention Program Coordinator, American Friends Service Committee. “This policy recognizes the fact that New Jersey is the state with the third largest immigrant population and that much of this population resides in the New York-Newark-Jersey City metropolitan area.”
The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice launched a campaign in March, New Jersey For All, which aims to advance policies that address the lack of government-issued identification in the immigrant community, wage theft, the need for expanded access to driver's licenses, and the separation of immigrant families.
The Alliance views the passage of a municipal ID ordinance in Newark to be a great first step in the growing momentum from immigrant communities organizing to make New Jersey a more immigrant-friendly state.
NJAIJ Member Organizations: 1199SEIU | 32BJ SEIU | American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey | American Friends Service Committee | Catholic Charities Diocese of Metuchen | Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton | Centro Comunitario CEUS | Community of Friends in Action | El Centro Hispanoamericano | Faith in New Jersey | First Friends NJ & NY | Haiti Solidarity Network of the North East | Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey | Ironbound Community Corp. | La Fuente, a Tri-State Worker & Community Fund, Inc. | Make the Road New Jersey | National Association of Social Workers – NJ Chapter | New Jersey Communities United | New Jersey Policy Perspective | New Labor | Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, Inc. | Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of NJ | Wind of the Spirit
NEWARK — On his visit to Camden today, President Obama will hear in more detail about the successes of the recently formed Camden County Police Department, which has been lauded in many corners for its advances in community policing and a reduction in the impoverished city’s violent crime rate since it took over the city police department two years ago.
Chief Scott Thomson has been a national leader in promoting community policing, testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year. “Community policing cannot be a program, unit, strategy or tactic. It must be the core principle which lies at the foundation of a police department's culture,” he said. “Community policing is not an option, it's an affirmative obligation."
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey agrees with Thomson about the importance of community policing. At the same time, the ACLU-NJ is concerned about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in Camden since the new force took over. An emphasis on making arrests and issuing tickets for activities like riding a bicycle without a bell, disorderly conduct, or failing to adequately maintain lights or reflectors on a vehicle are counter to the practice of community policing. The ACLU-NJ is also concerned about some of the data related to investigations of excessive force complaints by Camden residents.
“We value Chief Thomson’s public commitment to community policing and his prioritizing of community engagement, but we are concerned that the numbers in Camden have begun to tell a different story,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses, combined with what appears to be the absence of adequate accountability for excessive force complaints, raise serious concerns. The reality is that more people are being arrested for petty offenses, which is overwhelming the courts and has the potential to create a climate of fear, rather than respect, in the community."
Community policing is premised on building relationships and trust between police officers and the communities they serve. Focusing police resources on criminalizing minor misbehavior can lead to greater mistrust and a feeling of harassment by the police. Arrests and summonses for low-level offenses can have a spiraling effect that could lead to people losing their jobs, public benefits or immigration status. These sanctions can also result in hundreds of dollars in fines and a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job in the future.
“Aggressively enforcing low-level offenses will only serve to escalate tensions and make communities less safe,” said Ofer. “In a city plagued by poverty and disenfranchisement, funneling more people into our bloated criminal justice system harms families and communities and blunts the kind of community development that the people of Camden deserve.”
Ofer commended the new Camden County police force for emphasizing greater engagement with community members, patrolling the streets on foot rather than in cars, and in general building enhanced relationships. An example of the improved practices includes a reduction in police response times to an average of 4.4 minutes from a horrendous 60 minutes in the past.
But, Ofer added, “Before we hold Camden up as a model of community policing, we must address the troubling indicators that point to Camden’s use of practices that appear to take a page from a broken windows approach to policing. We know from cities across the country that broken windows policing often leads to distrust and alienation between communities and the police.”
The arrest and summons data, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, for the first full year of the Camden County Police Department include the following examples, which compare the periods of July 2012 through June 2013 and July 2013 through June 2014 (the county force took over in May 2013):
The marked increase in enforcement for low-level offenses has ballooned the Camden Municipal Court caseload by 29 percent. Unlike the Superior Court, which handles serious indictable offenses (felonies), the municipal court handles low-level arrests and summonses.
Nearly 125,000 cases were filed between July 2013 and June 2014 in Camden Municipal Court, up from 97,000 the previous year. In other words, even if every single Camden resident — adult and child — were hauled into Municipal Court, there would still be an additional 50,000 cases approximately. The volume has prompted the city to add a fourth judge, two public defenders, and a prosecutor. The court’s administrative staff has nearly doubled.
Adding tens of thousands of additional cases before the Camden Municipal Court will not make the City of Camden safer. For many years Camden has suffered from poverty and joblessness, and the city cannot arrest its way out of this problem. Funneling more people into the criminal justice system does more harm than good, as does imposing municipal court fines and fees on communities that can least afford them.
The data also show 65 excessive force complaints filed against Camden police officers in 2014, an escalation from the number in previous years and the most complaints against any department in the state of New Jersey during the same period. The number of complaints exceeded the combined totals reported by the departments in Newark and Jersey City, the two biggest cities in the state with hundreds more officers.
In addition, according to reporting by The Philadelphia Inquirer, not one of the 65 excessive force complaints filed in 2014 has been sustained. The report suggests that the department has finished investigating 44 of the 65 complaints and dismissed all of them. The remaining 21 are pending. If true, such numbers raise serious concerns about systems designed to ensure accountability.
Thomson testified before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which made several recommendations for police departments, and Thomson is already in the process of implementing several of the recommendations. We encourage the Camden County Police Department to adopt, at the very least, these recommendations from the President’s Task Force:
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today applauded the overwhelming passage of A1039, a bill that would offer some of the strongest protections in the nation against abusive drone surveillance by law enforcement.
The bill would require police to obtain a warrant before using surveillance drones except in certain extraordinary situations, and it would require law enforcement to dispose of information within two weeks unless it’s being used for an ongoing investigation. Additionally, the legislation prohibits using drones as weapons in the state of New Jersey, and it requires law enforcement agencies to publicly report on their use of drones.
“Drone technology is expanding rapidly and the law needs to keep pace. This legislation is a critical starting point,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “Drones have remarkable capacity to gather information about New Jerseyans’ everyday lives, as well as the dangerous potential to encroach on our privacy. This legislation would add common-sense protections for when and how law enforcement can use drones in our state.”
A1039 was introduced by Assemblyman Dan Benson at the start of the legislative session. Similar legislation regulating drones passed the Senate and Assembly nearly unanimously in January 2014, only to be pocket-vetoed by Governor Christie. The bill today passed nearly unanimously in the Assembly, with 66 votes for the legislation, three abstentions and one vote against.
Twelve other states — Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have passed drone privacy laws.
S2310, the bill’s companion in the Senate, was introduced by Senator Nicholas Sacco. The bill currently sits in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee awaiting a hearing.
“The drones are coming. With no rules in place, law enforcement’s use of drones is a scary prospect,” Rosmarin added. “We urge the Senate to stand up for New Jerseyans’ rights and make sure that the drones that will soon fly through New Jersey skies do not become a privacy nightmare.”
The text of A1039 can be found here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2014/Bills/A1500/1039_R1.PDF
NEWARK – In a groundbreaking ruling in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey case, a New Jersey judge found that people convicted of crimes as juveniles cannot be sentenced to de facto life without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes.
The case involved James Comer, who was sentenced at age 17 to serve 75 years in prison, more than 68 without parole. Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Vena in a ruling Friday, May 8, concurred with the ACLU-NJ that because Comer will be 86 years old when he first becomes eligible for a parole hearing, he had effectively been serving a life sentence. As a result of the ruling, Comer will be resentenced.
“The judge adopted the Supreme Court’s axiomatic observation that children are not just miniature adults. The unique nature of their brain chemistry requires that they be treated differently than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This ruling clearly affirms that before a court can condemn a child to die in prison, it must consider the things about youth that make these extreme sentences so ill-suited to juveniles.”
The ACLU-NJ argued that a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions proscribed courts from sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, including de facto life sentences. Consistent with these cases, Comer’s resentencing will take into account the immaturity and impetuousness that accompanies youth; his home environment at the time; the circumstances of the offense, the deficiencies of young people in handling real-world functions, such as dealing with attorneys or police officers; and the possibility of Comer’s rehabilitation.
While the judge did not share the interpretation that the Supreme Court’s rulings amounted to an absolute rejection of life sentences of minors, the judge did rule that Comer’s sentence was unconstitutional because the judge failed to factor in the hallmark factors of youth involved in his crime.
“This ruling gets New Jersey courts one step closer to the reality that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., who along with Joseph A. Pace, also of Gibbons P.C., represented Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The question isn’t whether Comer deserves to be released – the question is whether Comer and other children charged with serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as they mature.”
Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, was sentenced in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no meaningful consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder, even though they did not actually kill or intend to kill. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, one who was charged with the actual killing and the other who was an adult.
The resentencing, which has not yet been scheduled, will take place in Essex County. The State plans to appeal Judge Vena’s decision. The decision is available at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/State%20v.%20Comer%20OPINION;%2003-01-0231%20PDF.pdf
NEWARK -- Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP) praised the Civilian Complaint Review Board established by the executive order of Mayor Ras Baraka today, citing it as one of the most progressive civilian police review boards in the nation and calling it a critical step in creating a transparent and accountable Newark Police Department.
The review board, as established by the executive order, empowers an 11-member panel to review complaints against the city’s police department, and provides the panel with subpoena power, the power to audit police policies and practices, and the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.
Members of the N-CAP steering committee enthusiastically endorsed the mayor’s actions, and called for Newarkers across the City to push to make sure the CCRB is codified in Newark law to outlast any one mayoral administration.
“As communities across the United States struggle with the daily injustices of police misconduct, Newark’s CCRB will prove to be a national model for creating strong and independent civilian oversight of the police,” said Udi Ofer, executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We commend Mayor Baraka for working to transform the Newark Police Department and to make police accountability a reality in Newark. We look forward to continuing to work with Mayor Baraka and the municipal council to ensure that the CCRB has the resources it needs to succeed and that this institution of accountability lasts for generations to come.”
Newark communities have been calling for the creation of a civilian review board in Newark since clashes between police and residents of Newark during the 1960s. Today’s announcement is a realization of that decades-long struggle for accountability and justice.
“Today, history is being made. For far too long, the voices crying out for justice in Newark have not been heard,” said Lawrence Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We will continue to work to ensure that this civilian review board is strong and independent, and holds the Newark Police Department to the highest standards of professionalism.”
As outlined in the executive order, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will be invested with much-needed authority, including the power to:
The N-CAP steering committee also called on the city to provide the necessary financial support for the board by creating a dedicated budget line in the city budget that will grow along with the police department and will provide adequate funding beyond the $500,000 set aside for start-up costs.
“Today marks a new chapter in Newark’s history, as we seek to move past decades of mistrust and tension between Newark residents and law enforcement,” said Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199SEIU. “Thanks to Mayor Baraka’s leadership, Newark has become the national model for how a city can promote a culture of community involvement to confront deep-rooted problems. We are eager to continue working with city leadership to end unconstitutional policing on our streets and protect the civil rights and safety of all Newarkers.”
The board will be comprised of 11 members. The city’s Inspector General and three city council members will serve on the board, as well as seven board members recommended to the board by community-based organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, People’s Organization for Progress, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, La Casa de Don Pedro and a representative of the clergy. Five out of the seven community-based organizations listed in the executive order are steering committee members or endorsing members of N-CAP. “Public safety is a civil right,” said Melvin Warren, Criminal Justice Chair of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.
“We are encouraged by this important step in addressing the challenge of building trust between the community and law enforcement. Establishing a well-crafted review mechanism will help to ensure fair and effective policing for the people of Newark. With this effort, Newark has an opportunity to serve as a model for community-responsive policing throughout New Jersey and the nation,” said Ryan P. Haygood, the President & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
In addition to the investigatory powers, the executive order also creates an obligation for the board to conduct public meetings, publish public reports on its work, including the type and disposition of the complaints it receives, as well as make public robust data about policing practices in Newark, including stop-and frisk activity, arrest activity, use of force activity, and information about money paid by the NPD to in judgements or settlements of lawsuits filed against the department for civil rights violations.
“This is great day for our beloved City of Newark,” said Rick Robinson of the NAACP-Newark, NJ Branch. “Newark’s Mayor, Ras J. Baraka and Newark’s Police Director, Eugene Venable, deserve a tremendous amount of credit for demonstrating strong leadership and embracing the concept of fundamental fairness that will prove to be meaningful in the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The NAACP-NNJB believes that Newark residents will now have much-needed components, including accountability and transparency, to examine complaints of misconduct behavior by the Newark Police Department.”
"Garden State Equality feels strongly that police accountability is an LGBT issue, and we're proud to see this advance for justice. Kudos to all the generations of activism that made this possible," said Andrea Bowen, executive director of Garden State Equality.
Newark Communities for Accountable Policing is a movement to build a respectful, accountable and transparent Newark Police Department. Steering Committee members include: 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Ironbound Community Corporation, Garden State Equality, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Newark NAACP, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark LGBTQ Community Center, and People’s Organization for Progress.
NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) joined marchers participating in the 250-mile March2Justice tonight at their first stop at a community center in Newark to call for an end to police abuses and for a wholesale reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. The group included nearly 100 activists making their way from Staten Island, New York, to Washington, D.C., in a push for criminal justice reform measures.
“We are at a unique moment in our nation’s history where there is finally widespread attention being given to the problem of police abuses and a broken criminal justice system,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, and one of the speakers at tonight’s rally. “It is fitting for this march, which spans five states, to have its first stop in Newark, a city with a long history of being plagued by police misconduct. It is now time to put an end to racial profiling and other forms of police abuses and to build a criminal justice system that treats all people with dignity and respect.”
A 2014 Department of Justice report, which came in response to an ACLU-NJ petition for a civil rights investigation, found that between 75 percent to 93 percent of all police stops in Newark lack a constitutional basis, as well as widespread racial disparities in stops and arrests and a broken internal affairs system. In response, the ACLU-NJ co-launched a new coalition, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), to reform the Newark Police Department. The coalition is pushing for the creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board in Newark, which can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. In addition to the ACLU-NJ, the coalition comprises 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP of New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, Newark LGBTQ Community Center and People’s Organization for Progress.
“Change starts today with a single step,” said ACLU-NJ Organizer Rashawn Davis, one of the speakers during the evening’s rally in support of March2Justice. “The next eight days represents thousands of people nationwide saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ In Newark, we are working to create a civilian review board and a host of other changes, not just for the betterment of our city, but as a model across the country. Despite recent tragedies, we have something to fight for, something to march for.”
NEWARK – A state court judge approved a settlement agreement that will end the City of New Brunswick’s unconstitutional ban on begging. As a result of the settlement, New Brunswick has agreed to repeal or amend two ordinances that made it illegal to beg in the city. As part of the agreement, New Brunswick also will make a $4,500 donation to Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based organization that provides food, services and opportunities for people living in poverty, and pay $3,000 in attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel.
One of the ordinances explicitly banned panhandling, while the other required a permit to solicit philanthropic donations, violating the right to free expression. In effect, the laws criminalized poverty. With pro bono attorneys from the firm McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ brought the case on Dec. 19 on behalf of John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless man who lives in New Brunswick and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. Fleming had received citations for holding a sign that said “Broke – Please Help – Thank You – God bless you.”
“The Constitution protects the right to peacefully ask for money, and we’re pleased that New Brunswick will respect the rights of people like John Fleming who have done nothing wrong by trying to find a way to survive,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, other towns in New Jersey have ordinances on the books that criminalize begging, and the ACLU-NJ will work to make sure everyone’s rights are protected.”
“We commend the City for working with our team to come to an amicable resolution of our clients’ challenges to the ordinances, and are especially pleased the City agreed to make a donation to Elijah’s Promise, a group that does incredible work for the Central Jersey community,” said Nicholas Insua, a partner at McCarter & English, LLP, who along with partner Gerard Brew, led the team of pro bono attorneys serving as co-counsel in the case.
The court initially granted a temporary injunction on December 22, 2014, after Judge Frank Ciuffani expressed concerns about the ordinances’ constitutionality. As a result, the two ordinances had been temporarily halted. The settlement agreement requires that they be repealed or amended. Fleming, who relies on the charity of others to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months, including the day the lawsuit was filed. At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation.
“New Brunswick’s agreement to end its ban on begging serves as an example to towns across New Jersey that they cannot violate the rights of people in poverty,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, a plaintiff in the suit along with John Fleming. “Instead of criminalizing poverty, government should focus on cost-effective solutions like rental vouchers and affordable housing. Together with organizations like the ACLU, we’re committed to making sure every city treats every person with dignity, no matter their income.”
The First Amendment and our State Constitution protect the rights of people to ask each other for money, but hundreds of towns nationwide have ordinances outlawing the practice, including several in New Jersey, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The ACLU of New Jersey is currently researching these ordinances in New Jersey’s 565 municipalities to understand the full scope of the problem.
“I’m grateful that New Brunswick will end its ban on begging, and I know that it will have an immediate effect on the lives of others who rely on the generosity of their neighbors to get by,” said John Fleming, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “No one should have to fear the police just because of what is written on their sign.”
In a remarkable bit of timing this week, the New Jersey state Senate failed in a vote to over-ride a veto by Governor Christie of legislation that would have imposed for the first time strict legal requirements for more transparent governance at the scandal-plagued Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
What was so remarkable about the timing?
Republicans in the Senate went jelly-legged during Sunshine Week, a seven-day celebration of openness and transparency in government that began after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002 beat back attempts by the Florida Legislature to create some 300 exemptions to its open meetings laws. Its name, however, comes from an idea voiced a century ago by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In describing the need for public oversight of elected officials, Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And the point is to draw public attention to the necessity of laws that require government officials and elected leaders to conduct business in full view of the public.
The PA veto over-ride in New Jersey failed even though the bill, sponsored by open government champions Sens. Bob Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, had previously won unanimous approval of both the Senate and the Assembly. The failure of the bill to win approval “means the port authority is still vulnerable to abuse and commuters remain at risk of schemes that take more of their hard-earned money out of their pockets,” Gordon said.
The response to the governor’s veto doesn’t necessarily mean everything is rotten in Trenton, but it does demonstrate quite clearly that not all elected officials put a premium on the need to be held publicly accountable for their actions.
As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, even though it has a budget larger than many states. Indeed, it was only through dogged reporting, led by The Record of Bergen County, that the notorious “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from a Christie aide to a PA official was discovered and launched the political scandal over the closure of traffic lanes onto the George Washington Bridge.
The PA is but one example of the need for greater transparency and accountability in government.
In recognition of Sunshine Week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is offering up its own ideas for bringing New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act into the 21st Century.
“Open government is a cornerstone of democracy that enables advocates, activists and the press to monitor government performance and expose corruption,” ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg said. “The transparency of government activities enables access to critical information needed to shine a light on government performance and expose corruption."
In addition to the ideas for strengthening accountability – including adopting policies to ensure proper retention of government emails and texts that are made on private systems , creating websites where individuals can find publically-available information regarding their municipality, and strengthening the existing language of NJ’s transparency laws – the ACLU-NJ is highlighting five important government transparency cases that established the right to videotape public meetings, create privacy safeguards for automated license plate readers and closed loopholes in the existing open meetings and records law.
The ACLU-NJ celebrated a groundbreaking victory for New Jersey with the signing of a new law that adds oversight to local law enforcement agencies’ acquisition of surplus military equipment. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed S2364, sponsored by Senator Nia Gill and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, into law on March 16, New Jersey became the first state to require approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment through the Department of Defense’s “1033 program.”
"This victory represents a critical step forward for accountability and transparency in our towns and cities,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “For the first time ever, New Jerseyans will have a say in the decisions to acquire military weaponry being made in their name. While war winds down overseas, we must ensure that the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of surplus military weapons and equipment does not turn our communities into battlefields.”
Under the new law, local governing bodies will have to approve these acquisitions before towns can receive them. In recent decades, New Jersey law enforcement agencies have acquired nearly $33 million’s worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles, among other inventory.
In July 2014, Bergen County came under fire for seeking two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and the ACLU-NJ mobilized Bergen County activists against the move. Ultimately, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department withdrew the request.
In addition to signing S2364, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed S2365, a companion bill that would have given the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General additional oversight over the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to New Jersey counties and towns.
“The increasing militarization of police departments is a civil rights and liberties problem across the United States,” Rosmarin added. “We are proud that New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a law of this kind calling on local elected officials and community members to curb the growing militarization of local cops. The Governor’s decision to veto S2365, however, was a disappointment. Boosting transparency and establishing robust state-level oversight remain priorities and we look forward to working with legislative leaders and the administration to find a path forward toward accountability."
The ACLU has identified significant civil rights and civil liberties threats from the militarization of local police departments, as documented in the report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It found that nearly 80 percent of SWAT team deployments were for executing search warrants, and it reported on racial disparities in SWAT raids. Other states, including Massachusetts, are currently considering similar legislation adding oversight to local jurisdictions’ acquisition of military equipment.
The ACLU-NJ expressed disappointment with the New Jersey State Senate today for failing to override Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill to transform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) that passed the Senate unanimously.
The legislation, S2181, sponsored by Senators Robert Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, would have established critical independent transparency standards for the bi-state agency, whose failures of accountability garnered national attention in the wake of the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures.
New Jersey lawmakers voted on an override of the veto on March 16 but failed to secure enough votes, with 25 in favor and 14 voting against. In order for laws pertaining to the bi-state agency to be enforceable, New York and New Jersey must each enact parallel versions of the legislation. The New York legislature has already reintroduced its counterpart to S2181 following a veto from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during that state’s 2014 legislative session.
“Time is long past for dragging the Port Authority out of its own muck and directing some disinfecting sunshine at it. History has shown that we cannot trust the Port Authority to police itself,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The legislature unanimously supported bringing the Port Authority into the 21st Century by passing transparency and accountability measures. The Senate needed to show that same conviction now by overriding the governor’s veto, and it fell far short of what the people of New Jersey need. This nearly $8 billion agency impacts the daily lives of millions of New Jerseyans and we cannot afford to allow it to continue to avoid oversight. Today’s vote constitutes a sad day for transparency and accountability in New Jersey.”
As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, despite operating with a budget that surpasses most states’. Among other accountability provisions, S2181 would take significant steps to addressing this loophole by applying important open public meetings rules to the Port Authority.
“S2181 would have been a critical first step for the Port Authority and we support override of the Governor’s veto,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “But the legislature today let the people of New Jersey down. We need accountability, both through S2181 and through follow-up legislation to ensure New Jerseyans can effectively enforce the open meetings requirements for the Port Authority in court. We will continue to push for accountability at the Port Authority.”
S2183, a companion bill supported by the ACLU-NJ and conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie in January, would subject the Port Authority to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
The longstanding issue of transparency failures at the Port Authority drew widespread public attention in late 2013, when news of the Christie administration’s involvement in the closure of traffic lanes on the George Washing Bridge emerged. However, lawmakers and transparency advocates have attempted to shine a light on the workings of the Port Authority for years. In July 2012, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have given the public greater access to financial and procedural dealings at the Port Authority, among other reforms.