Time to Tell Jersey Police: License, Please

Published in the Star Ledger on February 16, 2006.

BY DEBORAH JACOBS

We take it as a given that any profession or occupation that involves interaction with the public will be regulated by a state agency. Accountants, architects, attorneys, cosmetologists, dentists and doctors are required to undergo training, meet selection standards and, if they commit misconduct, have their licenses or certifications revoked by the regulating body.

But what about police officers or sheriff's deputies? As incredible as it sounds, in New Jersey the public is better protected against recklessmanicurists and dentists than rogue police officers.

In recent weeks, two cases reported in The Star-Ledger illustrate our need for a system to certify and decertify police in New Jersey. In December, thepaper reported that Newark Deputy Police Chief Vincent Gagliano had a 1976 felony conviction on his record and had illegally carried a gun as a policeofficer since 1980. This was discovered when he applied for a new gun permit and indicated on the application that he had no felony convictions, which abackground check revealed to be false.

If New Jersey had licensing for law enforcement professionals, Gagliano's criminal history would have been reviewed prior to his certification as apolice officer, and we would not have had a convicted felon illegally carrying a weapon under the authority of the city of Newark for 25 years.

In another troubling case, earlier this week Newark Police Capt. Ralph Boswell, while awaiting trial on claims that he groped an officer under his supervision, was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in the back of his patrol car while on duty in early February. Under standards for certification, it could be required that an officer on trial for misconduct, such as Boswell, be placed in an administrative position until the trial concluded. Instead, Boswell was promoted in January, despite the charges against him, and he now stands accused by a second person of sexual assault.

Considering our history with police misconduct in New Jersey, one would think that our state would lead the nation in systems for police accountability. Rather, New Jersey lags behind 43 states that already have agencies, typically called peace officer standards and training boards, tolicense law enforcement professionals, and revoke licenses when necessary.Officers must be certified according to board standards to be eligible for hire.

By licensing police officers -- the most immediately powerful agents of the state -- we protect citizens, promote standards of professionalism and address the all- too-common problem of police officers who are terminated from one department for misconduct getting a job in another town in the same state, only to commit misdeeds against another community.

The number and type of revocations in other states also point to the need for a licensing and decertification system here. For example, in 1999, Florida decertified 186 corrections officers and 120 law enforcement officers. A review of all Florida decertifications in a seven- year period showed the vast majority involved sexual misconduct. The same is true of the decertifications in other states. We have a centralized system for registering sex offenders; shouldn't we have similar systems for police officers who commit sex offenses?

There's wide variation among the 43 states in terms of what type of misconduct can trigger decertification. In about half, only a criminal conviction is grounds for decertification, with some states decertifying only for felonies, with others also decertifying for certain misdemeanors, typically involving moral turpitude. In the other states, decertification can occur even in the absence of a criminal conviction, for example, gross misconduct showing an inability to be a police officer, or specified misconduct that doesn't result in a conviction, like domestic violence or drug use.

It is important to respect employee privacy and due process rights in crafting systems for decertification. Hearings on decertification are typically before administrative law judges, and the accused is entitled to legal counsel. Sanctions can range from reprimand to permanent loss of license, and the standard of proof is either a preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing evidence. New Jersey can look to Florida and Arizona for excellent decertification laws that respect the rights of the officers accused while protecting the public.

The time has come for New Jersey to take police professionalism seriously. Decertification systems work because they provide protection for all New Jerseyans, permanently removing an abusive officer's state license and preventing him from being rehired, at least within the same state. We need a strong decertification bill introduced in Trenton, and it should have support from all law enforcement organizations that care about the standards for professionalism in policing and public confidence in police officers.

- Deborah Jacobs is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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