by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
Burlington County Correctional Sgt. Matthew Peer channeled his inner Hulk Hogan when he leaped off a metal table onto inmates to break up a jail fight.
Newark Police Officer Tigee Pagan let a civilian drive his police car “in an unsafe manner” and posted a video of the illicit joy ride to Instagram.
Jersey City Police Officer Marvin Leggitts left his loaded gun in a McDonald’s bathroom in Hillside.
The three were among 389 law enforcement officers who faced major discipline in New Jersey last year, according to data the Office of the Attorney General released Thursday.
Nearly three-quarters of those disciplined, including the three officers above, weren’t fired for their misconduct and instead got suspensions, demotions, or other punishment — a trend reformers say shows why more transparency is needed.
This is the second year New Jersey’s 500-plus law enforcement agencies have had to publicly report such data under a directive the Attorney General’s Office issued in 2020.
The move was intended to empower the public to hold officers accountable for misconduct and build trust in policing by increasing transparency. But one reformer said the new data shows the directive falls short in achieving those goals.
“The ongoing problem is still that there’s really no oversight by the Attorney General’s Office in how much these agencies are disclosing,” said attorney CJ Griffin, a vocal proponent of police accountability. “Some of these agencies just write ‘violation of rules and regulations,’ which tells us nothing. It’s essentially not complying with the policy.”
As with last year’s initial release of this data, this year’s includes some very specific information about why some officers were disciplined — like Pagan’s Instagrammed joyride video — while other law enforcement agencies gave vague descriptions. The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office suspended Curtis Shaffer for 180 days for what it described as him using “used his police powers to violate the rights of a subordinate.”
Agencies that provided hardly any details should be required to fill in the blanks, Griffin added. Otherwise, she said, “it makes the directive itself seem very performative. As it is now, it’s not a good accountability or transparency tool because we’re getting so little information from these reports that they raise more questions.”
The reports show New Jersey’s law enforcement officers got in trouble for all sorts of things last year, from fighting to drunk driving to sleeping on the job. One, Jersey City Police Officer Stephen Wilson, got fired after he was criminally charged with attempted aggravated sexual assault.
- At least 15 officers were punished for drunk driving.
- At least 20 officers were repeat offenders, racking up more than one major discipline offense last year.
- At least seven officers were disciplined for domestic violence offenses.
- While most of those disciplined were rank-and-file officers, at least 130 were supervisors. Two chiefs were on the list. John Hamilton had been Linwood’s police chief but got demoted and was allowed to retire for offenses that the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s office declined to detail. Gregory Meyer, who was Lakewood’s police chief, was suspended for six days for an unspecified “policy violation.” Last year, Meyer blamed a “hack” for politically controversial posts on his Twitter account, according to the Asbury Park Press. but it’s unclear if that was related to his discipline.
- Six officers were disciplined for their social media posts. While those reports offer few details, several police officers made headlines last summer for racist social media posts. In Hopewell, Officer Sandy Erwin was fired and Sgt. Mandy Grey was demoted for calling Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists,” and in Montclair, Officer William Coad was suspended for calling COVID-19 a Chinese virus.
- At least eight officers got in trouble for fighting, and another four were disciplined for observing fights and failing to intervene.
- The agencies with the most offenders were the New Jersey State Police, with 23, followed by the Camden County Department of Corrections and the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, which each had 21 officers who got major discipline. Eight of the top 10 agencies with the most major discipline were prisons and correctional facilities.
- Fourteen officers were disciplined for weapons offenses, including failing to properly secure their guns. Another three failed to search prisoners for weapons.
One police reformer said authorities should examine trends in problematic police behavior that the major discipline reports reveal and then work to enact reforms — with community input.
“Directives look good on paper, but if they’re not expansive and there’s no follow-through, they’re not necessarily useful,” said Zayid Muhammad, an activist from Newark Communities for Accountable Policing. “It’s time that law enforcement stops playing politics with reform.”
Zellie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter organizer, said the reports help show that police violence and misconduct can happen in any community — not just those, like Ferguson and New York, where egregious cases capture the headlines.
But, he noted, “by continuing to be vague, they are creating a roadblock for us to reform the police departments to be better.”
Karen Thompson is a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. She agreed that some of the reports’ “bland, nondescriptive language” leaves readers with no idea whether “someone didn’t shine their shoes or someone beat someone with a gun.”
“The utter lack of any detail at all makes these reports useless and toothless,” Thompson said. “We don’t need a movie-level script. Even two clear, descriptive sentences of what happened would help. There’s a theatricality to this report, but it’s not moving the needle at all from where we were years ago.”
Thompson pointed to how Bridgewater police handled the recent fight of two teens, one white and one Black, at the Bridgewater Commons Mall. Bystander video that Gov. Phil Murphy called “deeply disturbing” showed police throw the Black teen to the ground, kneel on his back, and handcuff him, while officers allowed the other teen to sit on a couch and didn’t handcuff him.
“As things currently stand, if those officers get a major discipline mark, they could note that it was a ‘policy violation’ and we wouldn’t have any information about the facts that have caused the outrage about the disparate treatment of those children,” Thompson said. “This is precisely why we have to have more information — misconduct is obscured, and the harms impacted people experience are made invisible.”