Byron Halsey spent 22 years in prison before DNA evidence showed he wasn’t guilty of the brutal murder of his girlfriend’s two children.
Nearly a decade after his release, taxpayers shelled out $12.5 million to compensate him for his lost years. Now, he argues, the only way to prevent more cases like his is to open the books on police misconduct.
“DNA eventually revealed the real killer who had gone on to commit other horrible crimes,” Halsey said. “Exposing police abuse is the first step in ending it, which is why New Jersey needs to change the law.”
An analysis of state Treasury records and court documents obtained by NJ Advance Media shows taxpayers have footed the bill for at least $4.6 million more in wrongful conviction lawsuits over the last decade. That is most likely an undercount because it only includes claims brought under the state’s Mistaken Imprisonment Act, rather than federal civil rights suits like Halsey’s.
Now a widening coalition of civil rights and government transparency groups are calling on New Jersey lawmakers to pass legislation making police internal affairs records public, arguing such reforms could prevent wrongful convictions and save millions in lawsuits.
New Jersey is one of 20 states that shields such records from public view.
Months after social unrest over law enforcement shootings sparked a flurry of police reform measures around the United States, New Jersey so far has enacted few changes. New York, for example, passed legislation making an array of police misconduct records public, but a similar bill introduced in June at the height of protests has yet to get a hearing.
Meanwhile, a directive from the state’s attorney general requiring departments to identify disciplined cops also remains tangled in the court system. While an appeals court ruled in his favor, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal agreed this week not to identify any officers pending an appeal from the state’s police unions.
In a letter to state Legislative leaders sent this week, scores of advocacy groups — from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault to the state Libertarian Party and the Public Defender’s Office — argued New Jersey’s current system “allows police to police themselves without external oversight.”
They urged passage of a measure (S2656) that would put New Jersey more in line with the majority of states such as Connecticut, Florida and Arizona, where police internal affairs records are subject to inspection by the public and the press.
The bill would make most internal affairs records public, except for “certain information pertaining to the law enforcement officer, or the officer’s family, the complainant, or the complainant’s family, and a witness, or the witness’ family.”
The letter was also signed by former prisoners whose convictions were overturned after decades behind bars. In addition to Halsey, exonerees James Louis, Kevin Baker, Sean Washington, and Rodney Roberts all called for reform, saying under-scrutinized police misconduct was at the heart of their wrongful convictions.
None of their cases included direct evidence of police misconduct, though in each case judges determined they were the victims of unfair trials. Advocates for the wrongly convicted say that’s part of the problem: Without access to internal affairs records, it’s impossible to know whether officers with checkered pasts are helping put innocent people away.
New Jersey’s police unions argue state leaders are reacting too quickly to the politics of the moment and risk marking too many police officers with a “scarlet letter” by disclosing minor mistakes.
Requiring departments to identify any officer suspended more than five days would be “yet another attack against the good men and women in law enforcement serving communities honorably throughout New Jersey,” Patrick Colligan, president of the state Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement last week.
The unions representing state troopers are similarly opposed. Wayne Blanchard, who heads the union of rank-and-file troopers, said the Legislature should act to “facilitate a compromise that will be in the best interest of our members and more importantly providing accountability and transparency to the public when it comes to the bad actors that we will not protect.”
The letter calling for reforms, sent by the NJ Coalition for Transparent Policing, claims the current systems of oversight are inadequate and “regularly dismiss very serious complaints and fail to hold abusive officers accountable.” It notes that failing to investigate credible allegations of misconduct creates the potential for wrongful convictions and leaves taxpayers on the hook for lawsuits when convictions are overturned.
The letter was addressed to Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. A spokesman for Sweeney declined to comment on the measure. Spokesmen for the two leaders said they were reviewing the legislation.
New Jersey has enacted some reforms since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked nationwide protests. The governor approved a law telling police departments to develop “minority recruitment and selection programs” and the attorney general strictly limited prosecutors’ use of “jailhouse informants.”
But the signers of the letter say major reforms have been slow-walked by the attorney general and state leaders.
Jennifer Sellitti, a spokeswoman for the public defender’s office, said simply naming officers who were suspended for five or more days does little to give her office insight into whether an officer testifying against their clients is credible. For example, she said, a cop facing punishment could resign instead.
“That officer could still come back next year testifying in a case and we don’t know that he was forced out of the department,” Sellitti said.
Jeanne LoCicero, the legal director for the ACLU-NJ, said she was approached just this week by someone who wanted to complain about a pattern of racial discrimination by a police officer.
“There was just a complete lack of faith that anything would happen,” she said of the complainant. “There’s no way to know what happens to these reports and there’s no way to know police agencies are being responsive.”
Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Published at Wed, 21 Oct 2020 06:52:00 +0000