Rally at Statehouse for Police Accountability
People are rallying for police accountability outside the New Jersey Statehouse Annex as lawmakers have voted on several bills that determine how police do their jobs.
Thomas P. Costello, NorthJersey.com
In January, when Woodland Park Police Lt. Erik Luker was suspended and fined, the borough offered almost no explanation for why.
Beyond a brief mention of “disciplinary charges” in a settlement resolution, there has been no elaboration. And since then, the borough has declined to say what led to Luker’s punishment, calling it a personal issue.
Whether the public can find out why one of the Woodland Park officers was suspended, and other details of the settlement, could be answered in a case that is being debated in the state’s Supreme Court.
Impact of the court decision
Apparently, Libertarians for Transparent Government vs. Cumberland County is about the public’s right to see a termination agreement, but its implications are much broader, argued plaintiff’s attorney, CJ Griffin, a transparency advocate.
“The ruling will have a bigger impact – it will apply to all government employees, including police officers,” Griffin said, adding, “This case offers the court an opportunity to ensure that the misconduct of the police are not swept under the carpet. “
In Woodland Park, residents who requested a copy of the settlement between Luker and the borough under the state’s Open Public Records Act were denied.
A resolution adopted by the borough council on February 17 indicates that the by-law resolves the disciplinary charges brought against Luker and “imposes, among other things, a suspension and a fine on Lieutenant Luker”.
“The settlement agreement will make it possible to avoid significant expenditure of time and resources on the part of the borough, its administration and its employees which would be necessary for the prosecution of the pending case”, indicates the resolution.
Police investigation: Protect the shield
The document could shed light on the suspension, but since this is a personnel matter, it is exempt from the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
Mayor Keith Kazmark and Acting Police Chief John Uzzalino said in June they could not comment on staff matters or publish the settlement.
“Although the records have been requested by the clerk, until the Supreme Court case is heard and resolved, the documents cannot be released,” Kazmark said.
Residents want answers
In June, George Scarpa, a resident of Woodland Park, urged the state attorney general’s office to look into the matter over concerns that Luker, an army veteran, was on the shortlist to become chief of police.
“I cannot get a definitive answer from the borough regarding Mr. Luker’s employment status,” Scarpa wrote to the state. “I am told that this is inside information and cannot be shared. For the greater good of the community at large should dictate that the borough share with residents the offenses committed, if any. which resulted in the suspension of an individual. ”
Scarpa also noted that Luker was involved in a trial brought against the municipality by residents Robin and Michael McDuffie. In 2015, the borough’s insurer decided to settle the case by paying the couple $ 257,000.
“People of questionable character and temperament should not be considered for leadership positions in municipal government,” Scarpa wrote.
Pay stopped at the start of 2021
It is possible to reconstruct an incomplete picture of the Woodland Park case with other information available through public record requests. Luker did not respond to requests for comment.
From January 1 to July 1, Luker did not receive the first half of his $ 152,178 salary. On July 2, the agent wrote a personal check to the borough for $ 9,113.50.
Timesheets are considered public documents. Luker’s scorecard request showed that he had not been paid for six months, and a request for personal checks made to the borough showed a fine equivalent to 124 hours 34 minutes of wages.
What could not be confirmed was an agreement limiting Luker’s ability to seek promotion and the reason for the disciplinary charges.
Luker joined the department in 2005 and served in the Marines from 1999 to 2003, deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for the Sheriff’s Department before being hired by Woodland Park and is active in the community’s veterans organizations.
New Jersey Supreme Court Case
Griffin, the advocate for open public records, argued the Cumberland County case in the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
A key aspect of his argument is that the OPRA requires that public contracts be made public. This is in direct conflict with the OPRA exemption on disclosure of personnel records.
The case concerns a separation agreement between Cumberland County and a correctional officer who admitted to sexually assaulting inmates but was allowed to retire in good standing with his pension. However, it serves a broader public purpose, she said.
Allowing the public to read the contract “also allows the public to determine whether the public agency was reasonable in agreeing to the terms or whether the agencies are not ensuring appropriate liability for public employees,” Griffin argued on behalf of his colleague the public right to- known lawyer, John Paff, in the brief submitted to the court.
Paff’s Libertarians for Transparent Government is the plaintiff in the Cumberland case.
When asked if Woodland Park overstepped, Griffin and Paff both said the current Appeal Division decision was keeping personnel matters under wraps. That needs to change, they said, as the publication of documents involving serious police disciplinary action is in the public interest.
“It is absurd that we do not get these deals because they are contracts with a public employee and they often provide money to the employee etc.” Griffin said.
It could take months, or even two years, to get a ruling from New Jersey’s highest court, Griffin noted.
She said the exemption for such records has an added level of absurdity, as the state attorney general released a list of sanctioned officers and departments in 2020 in a move toward greater transparency.
Related: NJ Supreme Court rules Attorney General may release names of disciplined police officers
The list includes brief descriptions of the offenses that led to the dismissal, demotion or suspension of an officer for more than five days – situations like the one involving Luker.
However, said Mary Catherine Ryan, Deputy Chief Prosecutor of Passaic: “The most recent reports of major disciplinary actions included disciplinary action imposed between June 15, 2020 and December 31, 2020. Any disciplinary action subsequently imposed will be reported. by January 31, 2022. “