ACLU-NJ Voices Concern on Body Camera Directive for Police

July 28, 2015
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Law Enforcement Body Cameras

NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.

The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.

Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:

“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.

“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.

“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.

“We have real concerns about several specific, key points:

  • Many important police interactions with civilians will not be recorded, including routine street encounters.
  • Public access to the recordings is too restrictive. For example, the subject of a recording isn’t guaranteed access to the recording.
  • Recordings may be kept indefinitely. That raises concerns about privacy, as well as First Amendment protections.”

ACLU of New Jersey Statement on Clashes between Police and Concertgoers at MetLife Stadium

June 8, 2015
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The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:

Udi Ofer

“The incidents involving New Jersey police and concertgoers outside of the Summer Jam concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford last night raise serious questions about police practices. We are aware of reports of individuals throwing bottles at responding officers, but any time law enforcement deploy tear gas, sound cannons, armored personnel carriers and riot gear in a civilian context, civil liberties are put at risk and a closer look is required.

“The Attorney General’s office should appoint an independent investigator to determine and publicly report on what led to last night’s events, whether the event was properly managed and policed, how many injuries and arrests took place, and whether the tactics and force deployed by state troopers and potentially other law enforcement personnel were appropriate. The State Police should also release its Standard Operating Procedures for its deployment of the tactics and tools it used with concertgoers last night.

“The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor information about last night’s incident as it becomes available.”

Policing in Camden has Improved, but Concerns Remain

May 18, 2015
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Camden County Police host President Obama

Data Suggest Significant Increases in Enforcement of Low-Level Offenses and Raise Questions About Accountability Systems

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.”

Petty Offenses

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):

  • Summonses for riding a bicycle without a bell or without a light increased from three to 339.
  • Summonses for disorderly conduct increased 43 percent, from 1,766 to 2,521.
  • Summonses for failure to adequately maintain lights or reflectors in a vehicle increased 421 percent, from 495 to 2,579.
  • Summonses for tinted car windows increased 381 percent, from 197 to 948.

Court Case Load

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.

Excessive Force

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.

Recommendations

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:

  • Begin reporting data on a monthly basis on stop-and-frisk, summonses, use of force complaints, and arrest practices. The Newark Police Department adopted such a policy on stop-and-frisk reporting nearly two years ago and recently expanded that reporting to all summonses and arrests as part of its creation of a civilian review board to oversee the police department. We encourage Camden to do the same.
  • Adopt policies that discourage arrests or summonses for minor infractions.
  • Require police officers to provide their names to individuals they have stopped, along with the reason for the stop, the reason for a search if one is conducted, and a card with information on how to file a complaint in cases of wrongdoing.
  • Establish civilian oversight over its police department, which will strengthen trust with the community. A good model for Camden to adopt is the police civilian review board recently enacted by Mayor Ras Baraka in Newark.

ACLU-NJ Cheers Passage of Drone Privacy Bill in Assembly

May 14, 2015
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Legislation would require warrants and transparency for law enforcement’s use of drones in NJ

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

N-CAP Praises Newark Mayor for Establishing Civilian Review of Police Complaints

April 30, 2015
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Newark Mayor Signs Historic Order Creating Civilian Oversight of Police

Executive Order Creates a Strong and Independent Civilian Complaint Review Board that is a Model for other Cities

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:

  • Investigate complaints of police misconduct. The board will be empowered, with subpoena authority, to investigate civilian complaints about NPD officers’ improper use force; unlawful searches, stops, and arrests; and even discourteous treatment, such as cursing or slurs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other protected categories.
  • Ensure that disciplinary decisions stick. Only a “clear error” in the board’s investigation will allow the Police Director to reject a finding of fact from the board. The Police Director will retain ultimate disciplinary authority on the actions taken against an officer found to have committed wrongdoing, using a discipline matrix developed by the director and police unions, in consultation with the board.
  • Audit the department’s policies and practices, including investigations of patterns that reveal racial disparities in enforcement of laws, or any other issue of public safety or police-community relations

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.

ACLU-NJ Supports March2Justice at Its First Stop in Newark

April 13, 2015
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New Jerseyans rally against police abuses and for reform of criminal justice system

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.”

Advocates Greet Newark Mayor’s Police Oversight Proposal with Cautious Optimism

January 20, 2015
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Newark’s leading advocates for police accountability reacted today with cautious optimism to the announcement of a planned executive order from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to establish a civilian complaint review board (CCRB) to help oversee the Newark Police Department (NPD).

The Mayor’s proposed executive order would create a CCRB with the power to receive and investigate complaints — including by subpoenaing documents and witnesses — relating to a broad array of police misconduct, as well as the power to audit police policies and practices. The proposal also includes due process protections for police officers accused of misconduct. Mayor Baraka’s announcement today also triggered the start of a 30-day period for Newarkers to provide comments to the Mayor’s office on the proposed CCRB.

N-CAP commended Mayor Baraka for taking action to advance the cause of police accountability. Its member groups urged the Mayor to strengthen the proposal to ensure the CCRB is fully independent and can meaningfully hold the NPD accountable. This includes meaningful mechanisms to ensure that discipline sticks when police officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.

N-CAP organizations called on Mayor Baraka to strengthen the proposed CCRB before endorsing its establishment in Newark.

“We give Mayor Baraka credit for recognizing the need for civilian oversight of the police, and we believe this proposal creates an important start,” said Melvin Warren, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability. The CCRB must be empowered to make sure that officers are disciplined when they abuse Newarkers’ rights. The days of letting the police police themselves must come to an end.”

Creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board with full investigatory powers and independent fact-finding is a central plank of Newark Communities for Accountable Policing’s (N-CAP) mission.

“We need an independent review board with the power to make discipline stick,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “This proposal is moving in the right direction. It is our hope that after the 30-day comment period the final version will achieve that.”

The Mayor’s announcement comes as the City and the United States Department of Justice move closer to the appointment of a federal monitor to implement a pending consent decree to oversee reforms of the NPD. A three-year Department of Justice investigation confirmed widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the NPD, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, theft by officers, and an anemic, dysfunctional internal affairs structure.

“Newark has an opportunity to seize a historic moment by taking bold action to hold police accountable for misconduct,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “We commend Mayor Baraka for taking this important first step, yet this proposal as written still grants the Police Director unfettered discretion over police discipline. We hope the City of Newark will learn from the failures of other civilian review boards across the nation and provide Newark’s CCRB with the independence needed for genuine accountability. We look forward to working with the mayor over the 30 day comment period to build on his proposal."

N-CAP welcomed the opportunity to engage Newarkers in a conversation about police accountability and plans to conduct a citywide public education effort during the 30-day public comment period to generate support for establishing a strong and independent CCRB.

“N-CAP is here to ensure that all Newarkers are part of the planning of the creation of this civilian complaint review board,” said Emily Turonis, Organizer at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “We welcome the opportunity to engage our members, neighbors, friends, and community partners in generating a chorus of voices calling for genuine police accountability. It’s a new day in Newark. The time for change is now.”

N-CAP plans to advocate with the Mayor’s office to ensure that community voices are heard and community input is considered as planning for the CCRB continues.

“Newarkers have been calling for civilian oversight of the police since the 1960s and we will not rest until we have it,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “We must build effective oversight of the police department that becomes permanent in Newark and will outlast any one Mayor or federal monitor. We push forward so that our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity that we have.”

“Police Accountability is a top concern for so many communities in Newark. Whether you’re Black, Latino, a student, an immigrant, LGBTQ-identifying, disabled, homeless, or a parent, we all deserve to be treated fairly and with respect,” said Andrea Bowen, Executive Director of Garden State Equality. “Meaningful accountability will increase public safety by building trust and respect between the police and all communities in Newark.”

Four of the five organizations with appointment authority under Mayor Baraka’s proposed CCRB are members of the N-CAP Steering Committee.

The N-CAP steering committee includes: 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark LGBTQ Community Center, Newark NAACP, and the People’s Organization for Progress.

ACLU-NJ on Bergen Sheriff Withdrawing Military Surplus Request

December 2, 2014
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Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino is dropping a request to the U.S. Department of Defense surplus supply program for two heavily armored mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, according to media reports.

Three months ago, the ACLU of New Jersey and 150 of its supporters wrote to Sheriff Saudino urging him to withdraw from the DOD 1033 Program his application for the 18-ton vehicles specifically designed to withstand the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that ground troops encountered during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin made the following statement in response to the media reports:

“Sheriff Saudino’s decision clearly validates the concerns expressed by the ACLU of New Jersey and Bergen County residents. The best way to keep our cities and towns safe is to build trust and cooperation through community policing, not instilling a “warrior” mentality among police officers.

“The continuing militarization of local police departments is a serious concern for all of New Jersey. Officers should not be patrolling Main Street with grenade launchers and M-16 automatic rifles. Even if proper training is happening, the militarization of police is a disaster waiting to happen.

“New Jersey deserves greater transparency when it comes to decisions surrounding the acquisition of this surplus military equipment, including public discussion and approval by local elected officials, as well as strict regulations and standard operating procedures to ensure that such weaponry is used only by those with adequate training and only when absolutely necessary.”

Removal of Trenton Mural Raises Concerns

November 25, 2014
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NEWARK -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Trenton Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People today called on the Trenton Downtown Association to meet with the organizations to discuss restoring a mural paying homage to Michael Brown, the teen who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.

The storefront mural was erased last month by the city’s graffiti sandblasting equipment, apparently after the Trenton Police Department complained to the downtown association -- which commissioned the artist who painted the mural -- that the image sent the wrong message.

The mural showed Brown’s face, with stars and stripes on the shoulders of his clothing, and the words, “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”

“We believe the removal was improper both as a matter of policy and law,” the organizations said in a joint letter addressed to the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the executive director of the Downtown Association. “The mural presented an issue of significant public importance and a message that should have been embraced by officials as an opportunity for positive communication between the public and the police. Instead, the Association quite literally ’whitewashed’ the mural, its message and any opportunity it presented.”

In addition to the letter, the organizations filed Open Public Records Act requests for emails between and among the police, downtown association and the mayor’s office.

“While some Trenton police officers might have viewed the mural as sending the wrong message, it was not overtly or inherently anti-police,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas said. “Rather than silencing the artist, this could have been a springboard for community discussion about improving police-community relations.”

The mural was painted on the metal pull-down door of a vacant business, and according to news accounts, covered over an illegal liquor ad.

The artist, Will "Kasso" Condry, said he was approached by the downtown authority to paint a mural of his choosing. He chose the subject in consultation with peers at the SAGE Coalition, an artists’ collective that has been commissioned to paint more than a dozen murals around Mercer County.

“At this important moment in history, with so much attention being paid to police practices, it’s important to foster discussions in our community, not to suppress the opinions of one group or another,” NAACP Trenton branch president Jonette Smart said.

The letter also explains that the sandblasting of the mural interfered with the free speech of both the artist who painted it and the community which has a right to view the mural and its message.

Photo: BlueJersey.com

Statement on Release of Monmouth County Jail Video

November 24, 2014
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NEWARK -- A federal district court judge last week rejected a second attempt by Monmouth County to block public access to a jail surveillance video that captured the last hours of Amit Bornstein, who died on July 29, 2010, after being restrained at the Monmouth County Correctional Institution. Today, that video was made available. 

The video was publicly filed in court earlier this year in the course of a wrongful death lawsuit, but Monmouth County requested that the video be sealed after a news organization tried to obtain a copy. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the release of the video.   

In September, a federal magistrate judge ruled in favor of public access, and the county appealed.

On November 14, 2015, a federal district court judge affirmed the decision. After examining the county’s security concerns, the court determined that, in this case, those concerns were not sufficiently compelling to warrant the sealing of the video. The court noted that there is a “strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings, which is especially applicable here where the case involves a public entity and addresses matters of public concern.” 

“Today’s release of the jail video is an important moment for the public. Jails are among society’s most closed institutions, with prisoners dependent on the government to provide their most basic needs," ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said.

"Jail staff are responsible for the health and well-being of people in their custody," said LoCicero, who wrote the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief in the case. "When someone dies in their care, the public should have access to as much information as possible in order to properly evaluate the actions of correctional staff involved and the work of those who investigate the death.”

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