Newly released records in Elizabeth probe offer peek into toxic culture of policing

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

Fourteen people told investigators they heard Elizabeth’s now-former police director use racist and sexist slurs, with one veteran officer shrugging off the language as so common in policing it “was not something you marked down in your calendar,” according to an investigative report released after a protracted public records fight.

The details in the 21-page report about former police director James Cosgrove’s behavior — issued with numerous redactions — show why there should be more transparency around police disciplinary records, said CJ Griffin, an attorney who helped fight all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court for the document’s release.

“It’s just so damning to read that one of the witnesses said a toxic workplace is part of the profession,” Griffin said. “There’s so much secrecy around internal affairs investigations and the workplace culture can be so toxic for officers that it becomes very hard for them to speak out.”

Cosgrove, a retired Newark officer who headed Elizabeth’s police department for over 20 years, resigned in April 2019 after several Elizabeth officers filed complaints about him.

The complaints prompted an investigation by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, which sustained three allegations that he violated police department rules prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

The office subsequently refused police reformer Richard Rivera’s request to see records detailing the allegations against Cosgrove and its investigative findings, so he sued for their release. Griffin argued the case on Rivera’s behalf and in March the state’s high court sided with Rivera and ordered the records be made public.

Rivera couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The Cosgrove records show that a lot of people were aware of the former director’s behavior and feared retaliation for speaking out, Griffin said.

“What the police departments have traditionally argued is that they need this secrecy because no one will speak out if there’s not secrecy,” Griffin said. “But now, they have secrecy — and no one was speaking out.”

Griffin has represented the New Jersey Monitor and NJTODAY.NET in various legal matters.

Investigators interviewed 19 people about Cosgrove’s workplace behavior, an investigative memo shows.

Five reported that they’d never heard him use racist or sexist slurs. But 14 reported a wide range of offensive behavior, from loud, slur-riddled, anger-fueled outbursts and retaliatory threats in public settings to derogatory jokes and sexually suggestive comments.

One detective, who himself was accused of using sexist slurs, told investigators foul language is “part of the business.”

Investigators also interviewed Cosgrove, who told them he did not recall using racist or sexist slurs “but if he did, it was in the heat of the moment.”

If someone was offended, he told investigators, “he would gladly apologize to them.”

An Elizabeth spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note: Cosgrove was appointed by Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, who was first elected in 1992 and previously served as a council member for ten years. Despite his notorious racism, Bollwage has enjoyed strong political support from the city’s Black community.

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