Author Archive: Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director

Transparently Obvious: New Jersey needs to update the Sunshine Law

When Frances Holland, a resident of West Orange, read about an Open Space Committee in the town newsletter, she decided to attend its next meeting as a concerned citizen. But when she showed up, the Open Space Committee showed her the door.

Told there was not a quorum for a public meeting, Holland was asked to sit in the hallway while committee members met behind closed doors. Holland turned to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which sued West Orange for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, or “Sunshine Law.” In October, West Orange settled the suit, apologized to Holland and adopted an ordinance that requires the Open Space Committee to adhere to the Sunshine Law.

This week, as we mark Sunshine Week, a time set aside to annually recognize the importance of transparent government, we must remind lawmakers that the public’s business belongs in the public – not behind closed doors. And what better way to recognize Sunshine Week than to support a measure to update the Sunshine Law to bring citizen access to government meetings into the 21st century.

The Sunshine Law – adopted in the wake of Watergate – has not received an update since it originally signed into law by Gov. Brendan Byrne in 1975. Since then, the Sunshine Law has provided citizens with an avenue to democratic participation through access to meetings of government officials.

But transparency is one of those principles that politicians often support in theory yet rarely uphold in reality. Holland is one of countless citizens forced to fight for access to meetings. Now, with most people using electronic communications, including lawmakers, some officials exploit loopholes in the Sunshine Law, opening the doors to corruption and cronyism. The Sunshine Law needs an overhaul that reflects the manner in which government communications take place today, protecting citizens from politicians who might follow the letter but not the spirit of the law.

Blue Jersey staple Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (both D-Bergen) have introduced a bill that would bring letter and spirit closer together. S1451/A2426 requires public bodies to conduct the public’s business more openly, as well as provide members of their communities more details about the issues considered at their meetings.  

Deborah Jacobs & Samuel DeMaio on internal affairs reform

In October, the Star-Ledger editorial board sat down for a conversation with me and Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio. In the hour long session, we discussed several topics including the possibility of reforming the internal affairs system, the use of Department of Justice monitor on the Newark Police Department, immigrants reporting crimes and use of technology, and drug related crime.

Watch Below:

Internal Affairs Reform…

Department of Justice Monitor…

Immigrants Reporting Crime…

Drug Related Crime…

Hoping for a finer state of internal affairs for Newark’s police

promoted by Rosi

In the year since the ACLU of New Jersey sent a battery of grievances to the Department of Justice asking it to investigate the Newark Police Department, a few things have happened: the DOJ arrived, Police Director Garry McCarthy promptly left and, most recently, Director Samuel DeMaio and Chief Sheilah Coley have taken the helm of the department. Together, these facts hold promise that the city may at last enter a new phase of police accountability and reform.

Since May, the DOJ has gathered information on the ground from citizens and police officers. It has met with community groups and heard tragic testimony about the lives and families destroyed by the acts of abusive officers.  

The ACLU-NJ on transparency in Newark Schools: your questions answered

promoted by Rosi

In Sept. 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, NJ Governor Chris Christie, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey announced an exciting step for education reform in America: Mark Zuckerberg would be donating $100 million to improve Newark public schools, a potentially transformative opportunity. This week, nearly a year later, the ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of a local parents’ group to find out how that donation, and the plan for what to do with it to benefit their children, came about, since the City of Newark refused to share.

The city of Newark hasn’t responded with details, but the mayor of Twitter has: @CoryBooker: All grants of Zuckerberg $ have been made public. New grant announcements coming in Sept RT @bluejersey Update public on Zuckerberg’s gift

The next morning, he told the Newark Star-Ledger that he had disclosed everything, and that the records don’t exist. Wait, what? Below, you’ll find a detailed q+a to clear up as much as possible on our end.

You’re suing over the Facebook money. What does that mean?

The Secondary Parent Council, a 30-year-old group of parents and grandparents of Newark schoolchildren, requested records about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to the Newark Public Schools using New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (that’s OPRA – not to be confused with Oprah, who hosted Mayor Booker, Zuckerberg and Governor Christie on her TV show to announce the gift Sept. 24, 2010).

The City of Newark told the group that it could not provide those records (citing reasons that contradict New Jersey law). We’re asking a judge to decide whether the rejection of the request for information violated the law. If so, then Newark will have to turn over those documents.

What information did the parents ask Newark for?

In a nutshell, letters, emails, memos and any other documentation between June 1, 2010 and April 15, 2011 (the date the request was filed) related to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift supporting the Newark Public Schools.

Shouldn’t they just accept the money happily, no questions asked, since it’s a gift?

What Mark Zuckerberg has done for Newark is incredibly generous, and we don’t want to take away from the potentially staggering implications of this donation. But part of what made this gift so extraordinary was the promise from all involved – Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie – to be completely transparent with the public, and many parents and grandparents now feel sidelined and disappointed.

But at the same time, this is a gift to a public institution.

There’s more …

Culture Shock in the Newark Police Department

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In police departments, as in biology, a culture can decide the difference between something that saves your life and something that poisons you.

The culture of a police department determines the extent of misconduct, and this certainly applies to Newark, NJ. After decades of efforts to bring accountability to the long-troubled Newark Police Department, the ACLU of New Jersey last year documented widespread reports of police misconduct, including hundreds of allegations of false arrests, sexual assaults, excessive force and deaths in custody. That thick record of abuse helped bring in the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced in May that it would investigate the Newark Police.

Yet just tallying up the number of incidents fails to illustrate how significantly the attitudes of police brass can reinforce unethical behavior behind the precinct doors. The only way to see the corrosive effects of a dysfunctional culture is firsthand, in the day-to-day operations – such as the ones carried out in this confidential tape recording the ACLU-NJ received.

In this 30-minute recording, a former police officer calls the police department to report that his wife, a current police officer, was sexually assaulted by another member of the force. As we hear the officer who took the complaint report the incident to supervisors, the tone of the conversations range from callous to cruel, but never concerned.


Petitioning Justice in Newark

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In the aftermath of Newark’s infamous 1967 unrest, with stacks of citizen complaints in hand, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey made an impassioned plea to the federal courts to rein in the rampant Newark Police Department.

Decades later, after countless lawsuits and campaigns for reform failed to bring order to the department, the ACLU-NJ has taken another serious measure to address grave injustices against Newark citizens. Today we petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Newark Police Department, building a case for the federal agency to end the entrenched patterns of police abuse.

New Jersey made history with its most famous federal intervention. The consent decree signed in 1999 to address the New Jersey State Police’s racial profiling practices brought major reforms to all areas of its operations. Similar consent decrees have transformed troubled police departments in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles and inspired officials in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. to personally petition the DOJ to intervene.  

Police Reform Can Save Newark Money and Lives

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Faced with a $70 million budget gap, Mayor Cory Booker has proposed cost-cutting measures ranging from layoffs to shutting down city pools to wiping out the city’s toilet paper budget.

But one important area for potential multi-million dollar savings hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: cutting the astronomical costs of police misconduct. Each year, Newark spends millions of dollars defending itself in lawsuits and paying out settlements to victims of police abuse.

The public hears little about police misconduct lawsuits because the vast majority of cases settle, and victims are typically forced to agree to remain silent as a condition of settlement. In addition, only settlements over $21,000 require approval from the city council. Public records about all settlements exist, but there is no central location, making it difficult for citizens who want to know the actual cost of police misconduct.

To uncover the true costs of police misconduct, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, meeting minutes and a battery of public records.

This is what we found: Between January 2008 and July 2010, there were 24 cases brought by citizens against the Newark Police that ended in settlement or arbitration. For the 19 cases those settlement amounts we could uncover, Newark paid out $1,041,617. That figure is only for cases that have already settled — there are another 31 cases pending. And that same 18 months, at least 51 tort claims were filed against the police department – notices of lawsuits to come.

The cases describe nightmarish encounters with police: beatings, malicious prosecution, arrests of people videotaping police, homophobic slurs, recklessly driven police cars, and at least one sexual assault. Many of the officers named in the cases have a history of complaints against them, including one who has racked up 62 Internal Affairs complaints and another with 45.

Starting Monday, the ACLU-NJ will publish the details of a dozen such cases – settled and pending – brought by citizens against the Newark police on its website. We will release one case per day for the next twelve business days. Until now, most of these cases had never seen the light of day.

In the same 18-month period, the ACLU-NJ uncovered 11 settlements and one verdict in cases in which the Newark Police Department was sued by its own employees. In these cases, Newark had to pay a total of $2,691,503. Again, this covers only cases that have concluded; there are another nine cases filed by employees pending. The details of the cases that already settled, which the ACLU-NJ released in July, not only reveal the high financial costs of police recklessness, but the costs to officer morale and their professionalism on patrol.

When counting the costs, it’s important to remember that the money paid to those who sue makes up just one part of the bill. Taxpayers also foot the enormous expense of municipal lawyers and outside law firms defending the city in these suits, as well as the legal fees the city must pay opposing counsel when it loses in court. In the case of Darren Nance, a terminated Newark Police officer who recently won a $600,000 verdict, the total cost of the city’s defense, the plaintiff’s legal fees and the calculation of interest owed to Nance will ultimately reach into the millions.

Make no mistake – this money comes from taxpayers. Newark doesn’t have liability insurance. In fact, the settlement money comes from a general liability line in the city budget, not from the budget of the police department, so the Newark Police Department does not directly feel the financial pain of the pain its officers inflict.

And the financial costs are only the ones we can easily quantify; the steeper costs are incalculable. In the words of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “If individuals’ civil rights are compromised, public trust and confidence in the police are severely compromised.” In other words, police misconduct severely jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from the public to effectively fight crime.

Lawsuits and settlements can serve as teachable moments: they can reveal important information regarding dangerous patterns and practices in a department. Our review of lawsuits against Newark shows identical problems and behaviors spanning decades. When properly utilized, this data can provide police leadership the information they need to institute better training and accountability systems. Simply paying out damages will only lead to more abuse and more costs for the citizens of Newark.

Instead of trying to smooth over its mistakes with payouts, Newark should invest in reforms that can generate massive returns – in dollars, in lives, and in public confidence – allowing Newark to chart a path toward a new identity as a lean organization that will respect individual rights as capably as it protects public safety.

Until then, the citizens will involuntarily foot the bill for officers who violate our rights and for leaders who neglect the underlying problems that have plagued a floundering department for decades.  

The True Costs of Police Misconduct

Retweet? @CoryBooker – do you have comment for @BlueJersey on ACLU charge of Newark transparency issues? –

— promoted by Rosi (link’s corrected, thanks MJ)

Two weeks ago, amid news of layoffs in Newark, the City and its taxpayers took yet another financial hit: a high dollar verdict for a former police officer mistreated by the Newark Police.

A jury awarded Darren Nance $600,000, finding that the Newark Police had racially discriminated and retaliated against him.

Once lawyers tally up interest for this verdict, legal fees for his attorneys, plus the two private law firms hired to defend Newark, this case will likely cost millions.

Most cities rely on insurance to cover misconduct-based payouts, but Newark is deemed too high risk to qualify for a policy. Instead, these payouts come out of the pockets of Newark taxpayers. And for every case like Nance’s that goes to trial, many others settle out of court behind closed doors.

It is difficult to know, therefore, the full financial impact of police misconduct on Newark  taxpayers. We’re also left in the dark about the details of the misconduct at the center of those cases, and whether the officers involved are sanctioned.

This is a shame because lawsuits – especially settled ones – can reveal dangerous practices in a department. And when individual officers are openly held accountable for the misconduct, it can deter others from engaging in similar acts.

To determine how much police misconduct cases cost Newark, and shed light on the underlying abuses, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, City Council minutes and other public records to find settlements.

We found that since January 2008, nine lawsuits by Newark police officers against the City were settled, with the settlements totaling $1,696,503. These cases primarily involve discrimination and retaliation.

Lawsuits from officers are just the tip of the iceberg. In that same time period, Newark  awarded at least 23 payouts to citizens filing lawsuits over mistreatment ranging from false arrest to death in custody. Those, too, come with a hefty price tag – $766,617 from the 18 cases for which we have settlement amounts.

More cases are coming through the pipeline. We have identified 27 pending cases ordinary citizens have filed against the Newark Police since January 2008, and seven more filed by employees.

And there are likely others; since information about these lawsuits is not publicly disseminated or maintained in a centralized placed, we couldn’t find every case filed against the Newark Police.

The costs go well beyond finances, of course. Lawsuits aside, police misconduct jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from community members to effectively protect and serve.

But money matters, too, especially during a budget crisis. If the money Newark spends  to defend and compensate for police officers’ mistakes went towards reforms instead – training, technology, and resources for police – it would save money, lives, and public confidence in the long run.

The ACLU-NJ has an unwavering commitment to both government transparency and sound police practices. For the public’s benefit, starting today, the ACLU-NJ will publish “the dirty dozen” of these cases on our website – representing some of the most egregious claims of discrimination, retaliation, beatings, and internal affairs corruption. We will release one a day for the next twelve business days. Many of these settlements have never before seen the light of day.

Darren Nance, however, got his day in court. He started his career as a Newark police officer in 1989 and encountered racism in the department after just a few months on the job. He spent the next seven years fighting for his rights, until the Newark Police fired him in 1996.

The jury verdict for Nance, along with these settlements, demonstrates that justice for police abuses can indeed come. But it also demonstrates a disturbing pattern: we see the abuses described in Nance’s complaints from 15 years ago repeated in the settlements and pending lawsuits of today. The ACLU-NJ, which turned 50 this year, has fought the same kinds of abuses against Newark Police since our founding; change is overdue.

The only way to prevent the same mistakes, the same wounds, and the same payouts from the same stories is root out their sources. Otherwise, the citizens of Newark will continue to pay for bad apple officers who engage in abusive conduct and for managers and elected officials who fail to fix the underlying problems.

Strange Bedfellows (and Pillow Talk) in Trenton

Happy 50th Birthday, ACLU-NJ. – promoted by Rosi Efthim

Monday was another weird one in Trenton.

It’s unusual for the ACLU to testify on the same side as groups like New Jersey Right to Life and New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage. But on Monday, I had the exceptional experience of testifying alongside Marie Tasy and John Tomicki (of those respective organizations) on not just one bill, but two.

Disclosure or disaster? When censorship wears the disguise of transparency.

In an attempt to address the lack of transparency required of 501c4 organizations that run issue-advocacy ads during election season (think swift boat ads), A2595 goes too far by requiring 501 c4 and c3 organizations doing advocacy work unrelated to electoral politics to reveal their members’ private information. While the ACLU-NJ understands the importance of disclosure, if passed this bill would put a stranglehold on our free speech and association rights, and create administrative nightmares for already overburdened organizations.

For example, if the League of Women Voters spent more than $2,100 to provide information in a non-partisan effort to educate voters, under A2595 it would have to disclose names and other information about any donor to the organization who gives over $300. This is true even if the League provided information simply listing the candidates in each district or describing the public questions on the ballot.

Likewise, if the American Cancer Society or Muscular Dystrophy Association wanted to give an award at their annual gala to a legislator for his or her work in their area of interest, and the organization spent over $2,100 in printing programs and invitations containing information relating to the legislator’s accomplishments, that organization would have to disclose the names and personal information of any donors giving over $300.

The ACLU-NJ and NJ Right to Life, as well as other non-partisan, issue-oriented organizations across the spectrum, lined up to speak out against this bill. Even the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) objected to including 501c3 and c4 organizations in the bill. Assembly Judiciary Chair and primary sponsor of A2595 Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein decided to take the bill back to the drawing board.

‘Adopting’ Broad Coalitions in the Fight for Birth Parents’ Privacy

After the hearing on the disclosure bill had finished, our motley crew of advocates headed over to the Assembly Human Services Committee for part two of strange bedfellows at the State House. This time, the issue was the privacy rights of birth parents who wish to maintain the confidentiality state law has protected for decades.

For at least 50 years, New Jersey law has required that adoption records be sealed. Currently, anyone seeking adoption records must meet the courts’ “good cause” standard to get access (which generally requires a pressing medical need).  

Impassioned adult adoptees have formed a lobby to gain access to their original birth certificates, which include the names of their birth parents. The adoptees worked with Senator Joe Vitale to develop a hot messy sausage called S799/A1406, which would open the records so that adult adoptees who requested them could receive their original birth certificates and their birth parents’ names (see bullet points on problems with the bill below).

While we are sympathetic to the adult adoptees, the privacy rights of birth mothers who do not wish to have their names revealed must also carry weight.

I have received a number of anonymous letters from women explaining their situations and thanking us for our work on this issue. Several who wrote became pregnant through rape, incest and trauma, and they fear having those parts of their pasts suddenly resurrected by an unexpected knock on the door.

Follow to the jump for more.

Vouching for the First Amendment but Getting a Sideshow Instead

Promoted by Rosi Efthim

Yesterday morning wasn’t the usual in Trenton. I had expected to testify against S1872, which creates a school voucher system in New Jersey. But instead of a hearing before the Senate Economic Growth Committee, I found myself at a rally of voucher supporters – mostly children attending private schools and their parents. From a basic strategic standpoint, they weren’t the best faces for their cause, having an obvious, direct financial interest in the bill’s passage – S1872 reserves 25 percent of the funding for private schools for families with students already in private schools. But I suppose they made up for their self- interest with enthusiasm.

The hearing became a cheerleading session when Senator Raymond Lesniak, the committee chairman and the bill’s sponsor, expressed his outrage at the NJEA members who had filled the hearing room, while his hundreds of voucher supporters rallied outside. I understand why the situation frustrated him, but there were other, more productive, less divisive ways to solve the problem.

Instead, we all paid the price for his political theater. His sideshow cost the committee and those following the debate meaningful input from groups like the ACLU-NJ, Education Law Center, League of Women Voters, and NAACP. Instead of delivering my remarks collegially, seated at a table facing the legislators voting on the bill, I was forced to speak with my back to the legislators who were scarcely paying attention anyway. It’s hard enough to hold legislators’ attention in a hearing room with decorum, let alone with your back turned to them at a rally. It felt like an exercise in disrespect for the bill’s opponents, the hearing process, and the constitutional analysis I had come to share.

At the end of the day Senator Lesniak said that the kids had learned a lesson in civics – but he was teaching from a bad curriculum. The students had been taken out of the classroom for the day to witness a mockery of the democratic process.