Police training company takes fight against state probe to federal court

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

A private police training company is escalating its fight against a state watchdog, asking a federal judge to intervene and block state investigators from questioning the company’s owner.

Dennis Benigno, the founder and owner of Street Cop Training, has been fighting a probe by the state comptroller of police departments that used public money to send officers to an Atlantic City conference in 2021 headlined by controversial right-wing Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren.

A state appellate court in November rejected Street Cop’s bid to quash a June 2022 subpoena the comptroller’s office issued demanding documents from the company, and the state Supreme Court in March declined to hear Street Cop’s request for review.

So the company complied and provided “many gigabytes” of files and videos to the comptroller, Street Cop’s attorney Jonathan Cohen wrote in a complaint filed Tuesday.

But investigators working for the comptroller served another subpoena on Benigno last month ordering him to appear for a June 28 interview that “serves no reasonable purpose except to retaliate against plaintiffs for having exercised their First Amendment right to seek judicial review of the document request and subpoena and for filing a public records lawsuit against the agency,” Cohen wrote.

The documents Street Cop ultimately provided “speak for themselves,” and Benigno has nothing to add, Cohen wrote. Requiring him to submit to “an interrogation” violates the Fourth Amendment’s restriction on unreasonable searches because investigators won’t say why they want to question Benigno about documents the company already produced, he added.

A state Superior Court judge in May rejected the company’s claims of civil rights violations, writing: “Street Cop is a private vendor receiving public funds, thereby falling squarely” under the comptroller’s statutory purview.

A spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office declined to comment.

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