State Police won’t identify trooper fired for ‘racially offensive behavior,’ so advocates are suing

State Police won’t identify trooper fired for ‘racially offensive behavior,’ so advocates are suing

New Jersey officials have refused to identify a former state trooper who was fired for “racially offensive behavior” and now face a legal challenge from open records advocates and news organizations.

A coalition of 16 media outlets, including NJ Advance Media, recently joined the legal fight arguing the secrecy surrounding the trooper’s termination is a violation of state records law.

The case, currently before the Supreme Court, could have wide-ranging implications for New Jersey police departments, which have resisted disclosing the names of law enforcement officers fired for serious misconduct.

At the center of the controversy is a single, anonymous New Jersey state trooper, who was fired after admitting “to acting in an unofficial capacity to the discredit of (the State Police) while off-duty by having questionable associations, engaging in racially offensive behavior and publicly discussing police patrol procedures.”

The trooper’s firing was disclosed in an annual report of the State Police Office of Professional Standards, which includes a summary of major discipline from the previous year. In 2017, open records advocate John Paff filed a public records request seeking additional details about the fired trooper, including his or her full name.

Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the primary law concerning the disclosure of government documents, “an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record.”

State Police denied the request, claiming Paff sought “privileged information.”

CJ Griffin, a public records attorney who has won major cases forcing the disclosure of government documents, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Paff’s group, Libertarians for Transparent Government.

“It is especially important that the public knows the identities of police officers who engage in racially offensive behavior so that we can ensure they don’t just move on to other police agencies,” Griffin told NJ Advance Media, which produces content for NJ.com.

Both a Superior Court judge and an appeals panel upheld the denial, but the state Supreme Court agreed last fall to take up the case.

Now, a coalition of media organizations led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are jumping into the fray.

Last month, the news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing the disclosure of the fired trooper’s name is in the public interest.

“Simply put, when a public officer’s misconduct rises to the level of termination, the Legislature has made clear that the public is entitled to know why,” the media groups argue in their brief.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could have wide-ranging implications for police transparency at a time when state authorities are trying to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

In December, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a sweeping set of police reforms. Among them was a requirement that every police agency in the state produce public reports of major discipline similar to the one at the center of the Paff case.

S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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Published at Sat, 11 Jan 2020 08:35:00 +0000

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