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New report on police misconduct underscores disparities in cop discipline

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New report on police misconduct underscores disparities in cop discipline

May 12, 2023 | 7:14 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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New report on police misconduct underscores disparities in cop discipline
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Police watchdogs say details missing from a new state report on police misconduct prove why full transparency is needed. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

A 30-day suspension for an on-the-job transgression seems to signal a serious offense.

That was the punishment levied last year upon Absecon Officer Kevin Craig, Newark Det. Frank Rodriguez, and state Correctional Officer Timothy Otero for using excessive force. State Corrections Sgt. Pablo Hernandez and Essex County Corrections Sgt. Anthony Maenar got 30 days, too, for off-duty DUI arrests.

But Hanover Patrolman Marc Leggour faced the same discipline for showing up a few minutes late to work without alerting his boss. Also slapped with monthlong suspensions were Lavallette Officer Victoria Lamb for setting off stink bombs at the police station, and South Plainfield Sgt. Michael Molinaro, for sleeping on the job.

A new report released this week intended to increase transparency around police misconduct instead underscored the disparities in discipline that persist statewide. The attorney general’s annual report on major discipline, now in its second full year, showed some officers getting the same discipline for vastly different offenses, while in other cases, punishment fluctuated widely between officers charged with the same misdeeds.

That prompted renewed rumbles from critics who say the report fails as a transparency measure because it lacks the details and context that could reveal why the disparities exist. Richard Rivera, the director of the Penns Grove Police Department, has for years advocated for increased transparency regarding police discipline.

“Why does one officer get a certain punishment while another officer gets harsher punishment for the same exact infraction?” Rivera said. “These are things that police chiefs need to explain, and they’re just simply not doing it.”

Rivera and other police watchdogs have called on state policymakers to make police misconduct records public, as they are in 19 other states. A bill that would do so in New Jersey has been stalled in the Statehouse for years.

Why transparency is needed

Disparities in discipline can occur for all sorts of reasons.

Studies show that Black officers tend to face harsher penalties for wrongdoing than white officers, despite an essentially equal number of allegations against them.

But it’s impossible to tell from New Jersey’s major discipline report whether Black officers are disproportionately disciplined because the report contains no demographic data.

A website run by the Attorney General’s Office suggests they are disproportionately disciplined. That data — aggregate numbers of active and closed investigations — shows that Black officers are the target of 17% of the 14,416 active investigations even though just 9% of more than 31,000 officers statewide are Black, according to state data.

Discipline disparities also could arise because there’s an inherent conflict of interest in police policing themselves, Rivera said. That’s why Rivera and others have urged officials to create civilian review boards to investigate misconduct allegations, as other states have done. Legislation on that, too, has languished.

“Allowing external experts to conduct these matters would be fairer, because there’s no conflict of interest — I didn’t go to high school with any of these people, they’re not my buddies, I’m not walking in their weddings, all of those things that factor in internal affairs,” Rivera said.

He added: “With external review, we would see that a group of citizens either reached the same conclusion based on the same facts, or something different — and that’s what scares police chiefs, when citizens who are being policed are now engaged in oversight of the police.”

The major discipline report also unmasked other problems in police discipline, including its glacial pace. Some of the discipline levied last year was for offenses dating back to 2017 and 2018.

The report showed that some officers resign or retire rather than face punishment, like Mount Laurel Officer Ayron Taylor, who stepped down during an internal affairs investigation into charges that he hacked into women’s phones to steal nude photos and shared some publicly, including of an underage girl. Taylor was criminally charged.

At the same time, the report hides other trends that critics say deserve attention, such as how often discipline gets reduced in deals cut with bosses or reversed by arbitrators, civil service boards, and grievance panels.

It also doesn’t show investigations where charges aren’t sustained. Only 31% of 10,750 investigations closed since 2011 resulted in sustained charges, according to the attorney general’s internal affairs data. Most sustained cases resulted in minor discipline, such as written or oral reprimands or counseling, the data shows.

Just because allegations aren’t sustained doesn’t mean an officer is innocent of the allegations against him. About 17% of investigations are administratively closed, according to the data. That could mean an officer quit before the probe was resolved, or the complainant withdrew the complaint. Just 22% of officers under internal investigation were exonerated, according to the data.

The major discipline report sheds no light on any policy changes or retraining or other rehabilitative measures taken in response to officers’ transgressions. That’s a problem, according to Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project.

The public deserves to know “whether there’s any kind of self-reflection on the part of leadership about who are we hiring and what is the quality of the training and the policies we’re providing in the first place that would result in these types of misconduct,” Bonds said.

Beyond opening up disciplinary records and expanding independent oversight, Bonds’ group also supports a national police misconduct database to ensure that problem cops don’t hop undetected to other jurisdictions.

Such a database, which exists in the United Kingdom, is even more important at a time when the policing profession is struggling to recruit and retain officers, Bonds added.

“Without transparency, it makes it really hard for the public to assess the quality of officers who are on the streets and the sufficiency of the response of police leadership when there is misconduct,” Bonds said. “And it allows police officers accused of serious conduct to resign and work somewhere else, rather than be terminated or face a formal disciplinary response to their misconduct.”