Release Newark Police Director's Disciplinary Records

This op-ed appeared in The Star-Ledger on Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When word of an impending transition in the Newark Police Department leadership hit the news, the ACLU of New Jersey immediately called for Mayor Cory Booker to release the Internal Affairs records of any candidate under consideration for the new or interim Newark Police Director. Last week, Mayor Booker appointed Deputy Police Chief Samuel DeMaio as interim director, but he offered no glimpse into the disciplinary history of a man who he called "the toughest cop in Newark."

If DeMaio's disciplinary records stay hidden, the city of Newark misses a rare opportunity to shift the tone of the Newark Police Department. This is even more urgent now that the Department of Justice announced yesterday that it has opened an investigation into civil rights abuses and misconduct in the department.

Booker announced that he is enthusiastic about working with the DOJ and has wanted to improve the department. If he is serious, he can start by releasing DeMaio's disciplinary records today.

The ACLU-NJ has documented a departmental culture of misconduct that has eroded public trust in the Newark Police Department for decades. While the Newark Police Department's record of abuse is larger than any one administration, using a transparent process to select its next leader moves it away from the kind of secrecy that feeds patterns of abuse. Mayor Booker must embrace a transparent process if he has any hope of earning public support for his pick.

For DeMaio, the need for transparency is especially pressing. In 2007, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office publicly reprimanded DeMaio for questioning a witness to a crime about his immigration status. The inquiry was a violation of a state directive banning any law enforcement officer from asking about the immigration status of anyone seeking police help. DeMaio also took the lead in the unlawful arrest of Brazilian Voice publisher Roberto Lima, ordering Lima handcuffed and held in custody until he would agree to turnover the newspaper's photos of a crime scene.

Among community members, DeMaio has a reputation for disrespecting rights in Newark, so much so that the mayor himself referred to DeMaio as "hell boy" in the Sundance Channel's documentary program "Brick City." Only DeMaio's official Internal Affairs record can shed light on whether that reputation is deserved.

The ACLU-NJ advocates the release of police disciplinary records in all circumstances, not just for high level appointees. As the state's leading advocate on issues concerning both police practices and open governance, the organization supports S1352/A2321, a revision of the Open Public Records Act currently before the New Jersey legislature. Introduced by Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, the bill would open all public employee discipline records to the public, consistent with scores of professions in the state.

The unique role of police officers, both as public employees and figures whose authority obliges a special deference among most citizens, makes the public's need for information more critical than for almost any other profession. The public needs to be able to determine if individual officers have engaged in misconduct and whether the disciplinary system works, which is not possible without open disciplinary records.

The countervailing concern - that good police officers' reputations would be harmed - has not proven sufficient to deter other states that have open police records nor for the many other professions in New Jersey that must disclose complaints and disciplinary records to the public: lawyers, architects, barbers, morticians, registered nurses, plumbers and at least 65 other regulated professions.

Explaining the need for public access to attorney disciplinary hearings, the New Jersey Supreme Court said: "Public scrutiny is essential to every aspect of the justice system ... Public scrutiny assures the system's excellence, for no flawed system of justice will survive in a democracy when subjected to public scrutiny." The case for opening police officers' disciplinary records is at least as strong.

Professions that lack public trust lose credibility. In the case of the police, it has been well-documented that the success of any law enforcement agency relies directly on the faith of the public, a fact acknowledged by law enforcement professionals.

Right now, Mayor Booker has an opportunity to set the record straight on DeMaio and restore credibility at an imperative juncture. Considering the abuse that Newarkers have suffered at the hands of the police, and the resistance that the Mayor has shown to getting help from the Department of Justice, giving the public an honest look at any top brass candidate's record is the least he can do.

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