The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints over his career — yet only ever received two written reprimands — has reignited calls for police discipline and accountability throughout the U.S. Officer Chauvin, like many others, had faced little to no consequences for any wrongdoing in his career. Allowing the public to have access to law enforcement disciplinary histories is the first step in stopping police from brutalizing and wrongfully convicting innocent people.
New Jersey is one of 21 states where police disciplinary records are confidential. That could change with new legislation, Senate Bill 2656, currently being considered by state lawmakers to make information about misconduct available under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act. Here is how the bill could improve the legal system.
In New Jersey, police misconduct records — such as excessive force, lying, and falsifying reports — are largely kept secret. Without this information, the public cannot identify officers who violated the rules and hold them accountable for their actions.
The secrecy around police discipline also blocks people facing potentially life-altering criminal charges from knowing the full background of the officers involved in their cases. That is because a New Jersey Supreme Court rule created a presumption of non-disclosure of police disciplinary records, in which the defense can only access information about misconduct if they already know about the misconduct. This catch-22 means that courts rarely rule in favor of disclosure.
As a result, defendants, prosecutors, judges, and juries are usually left in the dark if officers involved in a case have histories of transgressions. For example, if not informed of officers’ records of perjury or misconduct, defense attorneys cannot accurately assess the credibility of officers involved in their clients’ cases. Police records are important background information for defense attorneys and help them decide whether or not to advise their clients of their best options like whether to plead guilty or fight the charges.
This rule also means that when cases do go to trial, the accused cannot raise concerns about an officer’s credibility, and judges and juries cannot properly assess their testimony. Without the full background of police officers involved in arrests, investigations, and testimony, the innocent are at risk of being wrongly convicted.
What does SB 2656 do?
Senate Bill 2656, sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, would make law enforcement records available for release under the state Open Public Record, including:
- Complaints, allegations, and charges filed against police officers
- Transcripts and exhibits from disciplinary trials and hearings
- Dispositions of proceedings
- Final written opinion/memo on disposition and discipline imposed, including the agency’s complete factual findings and analysis of the officer’s conduct
- Internal affairs records
- Agency factual findings, analysis, and final opinions on disciplinary hearings
- Video recordings of incidents that gave rise to complaints, allegations, charges, or internal affairs investigations
How will the bill prevent wrongful convictions?
Police abuse can only be addressed if the problems are known by the public and the actors in the justice system. Senate Bill 2656 will improve scrutiny of bad behavior, which is often shielded from the public, and create pressure to remove those officers who abuse their power and contribute to wrongful convictions.
The legislation is also critical for fair and accurate outcomes in the legal system. Knowing that a police officer has a history of misconduct will improve assessments at every stage of a criminal proceeding — from charging and bail decisions to convictions. Innocent people will be able to more adequately defend themselves against the corrupt officers who stand between them and prison.
New York recently joined the majority of states across the country that provide access to police disciplinary records, and now New Jersey should follow suit. This legislation is a decisive measure in beginning to create law enforcement accountability.