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Local organizations advocate for bill to make police disciplinary records public in NJ

After the Highland Park Borough Council passed a resolution regarding Senate Bill No. 2656/Assembly Bill No. 5301, local organizations have been continuing their efforts to get the bill passed by legislators at the state level. – Photo by Googlemaps.com

The Highland Park Borough Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of Senate Bill No. 2656/Assembly Bill No. 5301, which would make public access to disciplinary records of law enforcement required under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, according to a press release.

Several local organizations, including Black Community Watchline (BCW), Antiracism in Action (AIA) and Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition (MBJC), have been pushing for the passing of this resolution in the community and advocating for the bill statewide.

Antoinette Gaboton-Moss, founding director of BCW and a member of AIA, said New Jersey is one of the few states where disciplinary records of police are still confidential, and the passing of this bill would bring the state up to par with approximately 30 other states which are currently more transparent in this regard.

“Passing this legislation in New Jersey is an important step (toward) transparency and accountability in policing,” she said. “There is distrust of law enforcement, particularly in Black and brown communities who disproportionately experience use of force and racial profiling.”

The bill will allow people to see information such as complaints, allegations, charges, internal affairs records, transcripts of disciplinary hearings, videos of incidents and names of officers involved, Gaboton-Moss said.

“Giving access to police disciplinary records will benefit New Jersey residents by disclosing if an officer was fired or suspended as a result of an Internal Affairs investigation and if it involved use of excessive force or racially discriminatory policing,” she said. “In addition, the bill makes disciplinary files accessible to elected officials to exercise greater accountability and for police officers to see if there is an equal standard of disciplinary actions within their departments.”

Nathalie Levine, a resident of Highland Park and a Rutgers graduate student, said state legislators must listen to their communities and the issues that matter to them.

“The unanimous approval signals the Highland Park community’s strong support of statewide measures to increase transparency and police accountability,” she said. “Passing a resolution at the municipality level is one way for community members to make our voices heard in the legislative process.”

The organizations were able to help pass the resolution through collaborative efforts of co-drafting the resolution, introducing it to the Highland Park Mayor’s Equity Advisory Council and gaining support from local leaders, said Sonya Headlam, a Highland Park resident and member of AIA and MBJC.

In February, the groups published an open letter to advocate for the bill on a local level, calling specifically upon their district’s state legislators, Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-N.J.), Assemblyman Sterley S. Stanley (D-18) and Assemblyman Robert J. Karabinchak (D-18), to publicly support and co-sponsor the bill, said Jessica Hunsdon, a Highland Park resident and member of BCW and AIA.

As of Monday, the letter has received 124 signatures in support, she said.

Headlam said the groups have also been advocating through coordinated social media efforts, participating in letter-writing campaigns to state officials, writing op-eds and co-sponsoring panel discussions on the topic.

Overall, Hunsdon said the bill is supported by more than 100 individuals and organizations statewide, and they work together with these groups through attending monthly meetings and learning from their experiences. Additionally, she said their local groups are working on developing advocacy toolkits and open letters in order to help other communities pass resolutions that support the bill as well.

“To pass this legislation, we will need a committed group of organizations and individuals who are willing to work together to apply pressure to legislators over a sustained period of time,” Hunsdon said.

Headlam said their work is only just beginning, and they will continue to ensure that the public understands the importance of Senate Bill No. 2656/Assembly Bill No. 5301 and continue to pressure officials in order to get this bill passed statewide in 2021.

“We are committed to doing this for all common sense police reform bills that are on the table and/or are forthcoming that will help bring law enforcement to a place of more transparency, accountability, increases confidence, trust and effectiveness, protects civil rights, helps manage risk and, most importantly, reflects the values of the communities that law enforcement serves,” she said.

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