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Josh Cochran, special to ProPublica

How Criminal Cops Often Avoid Jail

New Jersey officers accused of violence, sexual misconduct and more have walked free in deals that dodge a tough sentencing law. Now lawmakers want to eliminate it.

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This story was co-published with the Asbury Park Press, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

When New Jersey lawmakers sought advice about police accountability, one of the power players they turned to was Sean Lavin, a police union leader.

Lavin testified before state senators at a July hearing, where he questioned whether civilians are qualified to serve on police oversight boards, and suggested that chokeholds might sometimes be warranted. He also argued against releasing the names of officers who have been disciplined.

“It’s a public shaming to their families,” said Lavin, executive director of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council. “I don’t see the value in that, and I don’t think there is one.”

But Lavin’s own history illustrates something else. A state law enacted more than a decade ago to jail criminal officers and other public officials who abuse their authority hasn’t worked as intended.

Lavin is one of dozens of New Jersey officers who have been criminally charged with official misconduct but avoided the jail time called for under the law, an investigation by the Asbury Park Press and ProPublica has found.

Lavin was indicted in 2014 when he worked as a Mercer County sheriff’s officer. The indictment accused him of using pepper spray on a handcuffed woman, filing a false report about the encounter and encouraging other officers to fake their reports, too.

The charges included three counts of second-degree official misconduct, which is reserved for public employees who are accused of criminally misusing their position. A conviction on each charge should come with mandatory jail time — up to five years with no parole, in this case — according to state law.

But Lavin received no jail time, no probation, no criminal record. In exchange for his resignation from the force, in October 2015 he entered a “pretrial intervention” program ordinarily reserved for low-level crimes. It wiped the charges from his record.

Sean Lavin, a New Jersey sheriff’s officer who was criminally charged with official misconduct, avoided the jail time called for under the law. (Screenshot of a broadcasted Senate Law and Public Safety hearing on July 15)

Plea deals are common in criminal court. But in 2007, a sentencing law was passed and attorney general’s guidelines were enacted to make such deals the exception for official misconduct crimes. Instead, they have become the norm, the news outlets found.

All told, from 2013 through 2017, prosecutors charged law enforcement officers with official misconduct at least 118 times, the investigation found. Less than one-third of them received jail time.

The charges were not based on minor complaints of tardiness or failing to maintain one’s uniform. More than a dozen officers were accused of serious acts of violence, like pistol-whipping a suspect or attempted murder. Among the sexual misconduct charges was one in which an officer allegedly used his badge and gun to coerce a woman into having sex. Officers were charged with smuggling drugs, stealing and using cocaine, and tipping off drug dealers. Other cases alleged bribery, cover-ups, lying, intimidation and more.

“If the sentencing structure is designed to deter conduct we find particularly reprehensible and it all ends up being lip service, that is outrageous, that’s a fraud,” said Jennifer Bonjean, an attorney who has filed misconduct lawsuits against police departments in New Jersey.

Compared with other types of public employees, law enforcement officers charged with official misconduct go to jail less often, our analysis showed.

Prosecutors and judges have consistently downgraded charges in ways that fail to carry out the law that calls for putting public servants convicted of official misconduct in jail.

Now lawmakers in Trenton are trying to erase the law completely. An anonymous amendment, first reported by Politico, was tucked into a sentencing reform package that passed the state Senate and could be considered by the Assembly on Thursday. Gov. Phil Murphy, who could veto the bill, said he doesn’t support getting rid of the mandatory minimum jail time for official misconduct.

The amended bill would ease the penalties for officers convicted of misconduct in a state where police discipline is secret. New Jersey is one of few states where officers aren’t yet licensed. So, short of a criminal conviction, the state has little ability to remove officers or prevent them from moving to another department.

The tendency to go easy on officers who abuse their power is “a problem,” said Thomas Shea, a former Long Branch police assistant patrol commander who now works as program director at the Seton Hall University Police Graduate Studies Program. “And it’s a problem widely agreed upon within law enforcement.”

It may surprise the general public, Shea said, but good cops are outraged when bad ones get away with misconduct. Shea once ran internal affairs investigations and described how officers see police misconduct: Did an officer have a momentary lapse in judgment or did they consciously hurt someone? For the latter, he said, punishment should be severe — including jail time.

“There needs to be deterrence and a mandatory minimum for those cases, so anybody thinking of doing something like that thinks twice,” he said.

When contacted by a reporter, Lavin denied the charges and declined to comment further. Lavin, who has been fighting to recover his taxpayer-funded pension, pointed to documents that included a report by an expert witness he hired who found he had used force appropriately.

“I would love to make a statement,” said Lavin, 49. “But right now, I cannot due to pending litigation.”

His union defends him. “What occurred with him and happened with him was purely retaliatory because of his union activity,” said Bob Gries, executive vice president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police.

Lavin’s profile on the police union’s website gives no indication that his career took a turn because of charges of criminal misconduct. Instead, it says he retired from the sheriff’s office due to “severe knee injuries received in the line of duty.”

Current and former prosecutors say accused officers are often offered lighter sentences in exchange for their resignations from the police force. The state’s criminal justice system makes it difficult to seek the maximum penalties, as the law calls for, they say.

Philip M. Stinson, criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, maintains one of the few national databases of criminally charged police officers. He said the analysis by the Press and ProPublica shows how the system fails to stop police misconduct. “It’s not until you aggregate these things, like you’re doing, that you start to realize that these are systemic problems,” Stinson said of the findings by the news outlets. “And when you add up the numbers, it’s quite troubling.”

Sending a Message About Misconduct

When she was a Marlboro town councilperson in October 2002, Ellen Karcher got a strange letter in the mail.

The letter offered her a free grave. A $1,687 value.

But the offer appeared to have some kind of a catch. It was signed by a developer who stood to gain from zoning changes Karcher opposed on the township council.

“I didn’t know if this was a bribe attempt or a threat, but I knew I needed to get help,” Karcher later said. “So I called the FBI.”

About three and a half years after the letter arrived, Karcher was serving as a New Jersey state senator from Monmouth County crusading against public corruption. She recalled her personal experience standing up to threats and declining bribes.

“My house was vandalized. My mailbox was blown up. I got scary phone calls, warning me that it wasn’t good for my health to be standing between powerful people and millions of dollars,” she said in 2006 as a member of a Senate committee discussing a bill to harshly punish public employees who abuse the public trust.

“We can send the message that we recognize the grave economic and social costs we all must bear when those in positions of authority abuse the public’s trust,” she argued.

Lawmakers sent that message. The law, signed in 2007, calls for jail time for law enforcement officers and other public officials convicted of a list of charges like bribery and tampering with public records, as well as for other misconduct that takes place on the job, including violence or sexual misdeeds. Under the law, defendants should be jailed for as many as 10 years for a first-degree offense.

“This law forever changes the culture of tolerating public corruption and makes those who tarnish their offices pay for their crimes,” Karcher said in a statement when the bill was signed into law. Karcher declined to comment for this story.

The policymakers directed then-Attorney General Stuart Rabner, who is now chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, to draft guidelines for prosecutors to describe the rare occasions they could deviate from the mandatory minimum jail time.

Rabner wrote that prosecutors are supposed to pursue the “enhanced punishment” — that’s jail time — provided by the law. Plea offers should “discourage other public officials from abusing their office and violating the public trust,” Rabner wrote.

Rabner noted that under the law, prosecutors could cut a softer plea deal if a defendant provided valuable help to an investigation. A judge could deviate only if “extraordinary circumstances exist such that imposition of a mandatory minimum term would be a serious injustice,” the law says.

In other words, the state is ordinarily supposed to send a message with stiff penalties for public corruption.

But often it does not.

Tallying Official Misconduct Cases

New Jersey doesn’t keep a public database of official misconduct cases.

So the Press and ProPublica built one. The news outlets gathered records from prosecutors’ offices, court data and examples from news stories to examine official misconduct cases between 2013 and 2017. It is almost certainly not a complete accounting because some records are incomplete or inaccessible. Some of the agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office, denied a request for the official misconduct charges they filed. The charges are public records, and the request was submitted in May, but the office called it “overbroad.” The prosecutors’ offices that did provide records cover about 89% of the state’s population. Court data and news stories cover the whole state.

Among the 398 official misconduct cases reviewed, law enforcement officers were overrepresented, constituting 30% of the caseload but only about 8% of New Jersey’s public employees, according to 2017 pension data. There were 118 cases involving law enforcement personnel: 67 police officers, 11 sheriff’s officers and 40 corrections officers. By comparison, teachers make up about 35% of public employees but accounted for 10% of the official misconduct cases.

“It shouldn’t be this way,” said Stinson, the Bowling Green professor who studies criminal allegations against police. “The public has an expectation that officers are true to their oath, that they’re upholding the law, not breaking the law. We expect police officers to be the good guys and good gals. They’re not supposed to be criminals with a gun and a badge.”

Twenty-two of the officers charged with official misconduct had cases related to sexual crimes, such as a patrolman who allegedly exposed himself to drivers during traffic stops. He was sentenced to probation not for indecent exposure, but for tampering with public records by switching off his car’s dashboard camera during the stops.

Eighteen officers were accused of various forms of violence, from beating up inmates to brandishing a gun during a road-rage incident.

Often, charges were reduced in plea deals. In 46 of the cases, the accused officer was given an outcome more lenient than jail time, like probation or pretrial intervention.

Sometimes, the official misconduct charge did not get reduced, but the conviction still did not result in jail time, which goes against the minimum sentencing law. The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office gave three officers deals for probation for official misconduct convictions. One was accused of voiding a friend’s ticket. Another admitted to using cocaine while in uniform, and the third admitted to trying to buy sex in his patrol car, according to two news reports. The office’s spokeswoman, Donna Weaver, didn’t respond to questions about why those officers got probation. A man who answered a call to a number listed for former Atlantic County Prosecutor James P. McClain, who was in office at the time of the deals, declined to comment.

Last September, records and news reports show, a Monroe Township police sergeant pleaded guilty to official misconduct after he was accused of engaging in oral sex with a fugitive in his patrol car, helping her pay off a drug debt and tipping her off about police activity so she could avoid arrest. Again, the prosecutor made a deal with the sergeant for probation. The Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t explain why this officer got probation. Former Gloucester County Prosecutor Charles A. Fiore declined to comment.

In rare instances, the accused officers not only received no jail time, but ended up back on the force. One officer who allegedly tried to get a state trooper to dismiss his cousin’s drunken driving charge returned to work in 2017 after striking a deal for pretrial intervention, according to court documents and a news story. Another officer accused of improperly accessing a confidential database went back to duty after he was pardoned in 2017 by former Gov. Chris Christie.

How One Officer Got No Jail Time

“Sometimes, violence is the answer,” Jeffrey Profitt says in the trailer for his film “Violent Justice.”

It appears Profitt’s art may have imitated life.

At the same time Profitt wrote, produced and starred in the low-budget movie about a vigilante cop who took the law into his own hands by beating up and killing suspects, he served as a Millville patrol officer, where he was accused of beating up multiple suspects. His case shows how even criminal charges of violence on the job may not put an officer in jail.

Profitt was accused in a 2019 indictment of pummeling citizens on five occasions over three years, documents show. Three involved throwing a person to the ground, face first. In one incident, Profitt was accused of trying to put his police handgun in a suspect’s mouth, then hitting the man with the pistol. His indictment included 24 counts, on charges of official misconduct, aggravated assault, endangering a person, tampering with physical evidence, terroristic threats and more.

The last incident detailed in the indictment occurred one afternoon in April 2016. As Profitt told the Press and ProPublica, he responded to a call at a liquor store and found a drunken man screaming incoherently. Back at headquarters after the arrest, the man resisted when Profitt and some EMTs were trying to take him to the hospital. Profitt, who court records showed weighed about 205 pounds, said he “fell on top of” the man, and he hit the ground “like a tree going down.”

The indictment said Profitt forced the man to the ground in such a way that his feet left the floor and he hit the concrete face first. The man lost consciousness and “a substantial amount of blood,” the document shows.

Profitt was soon contacted by internal affairs and put on desk duty as an investigation unfolded. About two months after the last incident listed in the indictment, the first promotional footage for the film was posted to Profitt’s YouTube channel. A trailer for the film posted a few months later shows Profitt starring as Detective John Davis, who resigns from his department to mete out justice on his own terms. The trailer shows the protagonist digging what appears to be a grave, knifing a bad guy and conducting an interrogation with a hatchet.

An excerpt of Jeffrey Profitt’s “Violent Justice” trailer.

Correspondence from the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office to Profitt’s attorney, obtained through a public records request, shows prosecutors offered to cut Profitt a deal. If he pleaded guilty to a single aggravated assault charge and quit his job, he could still see jail time, but the prosecutor’s office would not pursue him for six other crimes, including the official misconduct charge.

He didn’t take the offer.

Profitt’s case went before a grand jury. He recently told a reporter that he was told he’d be able to speak to the grand jury but that he wasn’t allowed to. The grand jury indicted him on 24 charges.

In the end, the prosecutor’s office returned to its initial offer. He could plead guilty to a single charge of aggravated assault and quit his job. Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae declined to comment on Profitt’s case.

In the interview, Profitt acknowledged using force against each of the people noted in the indictment. But he contends it was appropriate given his official capacity.

Profitt is one of many accused officers who were represented under their police union’s legal protection plan. The unions have a war chest officers pay into, similar to malpractice insurance for doctors, to fund attorneys who represent cops in legal trouble. The state’s largest union advertises that it spends $3 million a year on legal defense for its members.

The presidents of the state’s largest two unions didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Profitt said he took the plea deal because he reached the limit of what his union’s plan would pay for his defense. He figured the deal was his best option.

The state argued for Profitt to spend 364 days in jail, according to a news story. But he caught a break: Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Robert Malestein downgraded the sentence. Malestein concluded the aggravated assault charge Profitt pleaded guilty to in place of official misconduct wouldn’t ordinarily require jail time for a defendant, according to a news story.

So he suspended the jail sentence and let Profitt go with two years of probation. A call to Malestein’s office was passed to a court spokesman who declined to comment.

Judge Robert Malestein in 2011. While the state argued for Profitt to spend 364 days in jail, Malestein downgraded the sentence and let Profitt go with two years of probation. (Adam Monacelli/Daily Journal)

“I already knew he was going to get probation,” said Mitchell Broughton, 29, of Millville, whom Profitt used force against in 2013, according to police records.


“Because he’s a cop,” Broughton said. “He probably never got in trouble before, so when you plead your first plea, it’s like — you get probation.”

Broughton didn’t know about Profitt’s film career.

“What the hell!?” he exclaimed as he watched the trailer to “Violent Justice.”

“That’s the way he acts for real,” Broughton said. “Violence.”

Osiris Pereyra, one of those against whom Profitt is accused of using force in the indictment, said Profitt injured him.

He said his mom was angry and called the police after he came home from a party in the middle of the night in May 2015. Officers arrived and Pereyra, then 18, said he wanted to be present when they talked to his mother inside their home.

Pereyra said without warning, Profitt pulled him to the ground, struck him in the back of the head and pushed his face into a gravel driveway. He said his lip was cut, his nose was busted and bleeding, and his face was bruised.

“It was just super unnecessary,” Pereyra said. “Especially when I wasn’t harming anyone. I wasn’t being disrespectful. I was just asking the officer if I could step inside with my mother so we could talk the situation out. And then without any warning, I got pulled down to the ground.”

The form Profitt filed about using force on Pereyra claims he wasn’t injured. The criminal charges filed against Profitt claimed that his force against Pereyra was excessive, and that he filed false reports about that use of force and others. Profitt said he was trained not to report an injury unless a person received medical attention.

The arrest report shows Pereyra was charged with underage drinking, obstruction and resisting arrest. He said he pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

Profitt, now 41, wouldn’t say what he does for work now. He said he’s no longer a cop and no longer living in New Jersey. He is still releasing movies.

He doesn’t think he got off easy. He lost his job and he expects the case to follow him for life, no matter what becomes of his movie career. “Ten years from now, I’ll be doing an interview about a movie and somehow it’ll come back to this case,” he said.

Profitt acknowledged that critics of his creative endeavors can have their say. He believes it’s entertainment. He did notice an upside to the backlash: It boosted the views on his trailers and films.

A Clean Slate

Other than dismissal, the best outcome for an officer charged with official misconduct is pretrial intervention. The program is intended for first-time defendants and wipes the slate clean after a period without other criminal charges.

Pretrial intervention records are secret under court rules, making it difficult to know why an accused officer got the deal.

Rabner, the attorney general who wrote the 2007 guide, amplified the law’s emphasis against the use of pretrial intervention. The law “creates a presumption” that a public official charged with corruption can’t get pretrial intervention, Rabner wrote. He instructs prosecutors to appeal the rulings of judges who want to reduce the mandatory sentence when the prosecutors disagree with it. And if prosecutors want to approve a pretrial intervention deal, they have to seek approval from the attorney general.

The investigation by the Press and ProPublica found 14 officers who received pretrial intervention in the five years examined. Half of the 14 cases involved alleged acts of violence. Among the accused was Lavin, the union leader, who pepper-sprayed a handcuffed suspect. Another case involved a Trenton officer accused of assaulting a patient at a psychiatric hospital.

Others were related to the integrity of the officers. Three Woodbridge officers were charged with covering up an officer’s car crash. Pension records indicate two of them are still employed in other roles with their township. The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office declined to answer questions about why the officers got pretrial intervention.

Police officer Clifton Gauthier at a court hearing on March 17, 2015, on charges of official misconduct and witness tampering. Gauthier, who was able to keep his job, is back on the beat in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. (Bob Karp/Asbury Park Press)

Patrolman Clifton Gauthier of Rockaway Township was charged for trying to get a drunken driving ticket dismissed for a relative. He entered pretrial intervention and did not have to plead guilty or admit wrongdoing, according to a news story. He kept his job and unsuccessfully appealed for back pay for the three years he missed while he was under investigation. He’s back on the beat in Rockaway. He and his chief didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office declined to explain how Gauthier got his deal.

The pretrial intervention deals for accused cops are still being made under Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s highest law enforcement officer. Grewal is known for instituting police reforms. But during his time in office, Jersey City officers accused of violent official misconduct secured pretrial intervention deals that called for the approval of Grewal’s office. It’s unclear if he signed off. Grewal’s office declined to comment on the case against the officers.

In 2017, the Jersey City officers fired shots at a fleeing suspect during a car chase, the indictment against them shows. Then, when the suspect’s car ran an innocent person off the road, some of the cops beat the uninvolved driver, who was engulfed in flames at the time, breaking four ribs and causing abrasions, according to a video of the incident and a Press interview with the driver. Two of the four officers charged were accused of attempted murder, in addition to official misconduct. One of them got probation, the other pretrial intervention. The two others charged received pretrial intervention deals, and one got to keep his pension. All four lost their jobs. A spokesman for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the cases.

Why Deals are Made

Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni called the actions of two Asbury Park officers a “textbook definition of a breach of the position of trust.” In 2019, he charged the officers with official misconduct for vandalizing the cars of a citizen who complained about them.

Yet Gramiccioni cut the officers a deal nearly a year after the incident. Though he still considered it “spiteful retaliation,” his office reduced the charges and agreed to push for probation after the officers pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal mischief. They haven’t yet been sentenced.

Gramiccioni’s stance on the deal helps explain how accused officers in some cases have been able to secure court outcomes that appear to conflict with the Legislature’s intent for official misconduct.

Apparently, it comes down to one word.

Though the attorney general’s guidelines say that an official misconduct plea “should” mean jail time, “should” is not the same as “shall,” Gramiccioni noted in a written response.

“Our criminal justice system depends upon the practice of plea bargaining,” Gramiccioni wrote. “The system is not designed for prosecutors to seek the maximum charges and sentence for every single defendant on every single case.”

Making plea deals “alleviates burdened court dockets and allows prosecutors’ offices to direct more resources to defendants charged with more serious offenses,” Gramiccioni wrote.

Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni charged two officers in 2019 with official misconduct for vandalizing the cars of a citizen who complained about them. He cut them a deal nearly one year after the incident. (Tom Spader/Asbury Park Press)

Gramiccioni said the officers will be barred from public employment. They also have to pay the citizen for the damage to his cars and they’ll have to serve probation.

The attorney general’s office agreed that removing abusive officers from their jobs is the top priority. “Protecting the public from a bad officer is an important goal that may, in many cases, be more important than getting a longer jail or prison sentence,” Steven Barnes, the attorney general’s spokesperson, wrote in an email.

Yet the standard described by Barnes doesn’t seem to fit with the guidelines Rabner wrote to guide prosecutors. The authorities should require the defendant to plead guilty to the “most serious, readily provable offense” that would subject them to the “enhanced punishment” of the mandatory minimum sentence, Rabner wrote.

Elie Honig, a former director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice who oversaw the branch of the attorney general’s office that handles criminal prosecutions confirmed the intent of the law was to send a stern message on various forms of public corruption. But those who enforce the law might not agree it’s right for each case, he said.

“A primary purpose behind the [official misconduct] statute and the mandatory minimum was deterrence, the idea that we should have very little tolerance for corruption and that acts of corruption will be punished severely,” said Honig, who is now executive director of the Rutgers Institute for Secure Communities, a law enforcement research group. “That said, I think if you surveyed prosecutors and defense lawyers and even judges, you would find a broad consensus that in some cases the mandatory minimums are excessive.”

Former Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, who left office in 2018, said he agreed with the mandatory minimum sentence for official misconduct and said he didn’t know anyone in law enforcement who was opposed. Prosecutors want to achieve deterrence, he explained, but they also risk losing cases if they go to trial.

Coronato lost one such case. News stories and a video show Tuckerton police officer Justin Cherry was charged in 2014 with official misconduct after an incident involving a driver. Video from the police dashboard camera shows officers pulling the female driver out of a car and onto the ground. Then Cherry’s police dog attacks the woman for almost 30 seconds, the video shows. Cherry was charged with official misconduct and simple assault, according to a news story. He was acquitted in a bench trial, before a judge and not a jury, according to a news story.

Reached by a reporter, Cherry said his use of force was appropriate and he’s appealing in court to get his job back after he was fired by his department in April.

Police officer Justin Cherry was charged in 2014 with official misconduct and simple assault. Cherry was acquitted in a bench trial before a judge and not a jury. (Paula Scully/Asbury Park Press)

“You want to send a clear message out there,” said Coronato, who declined to specifically discuss the case against Cherry. “But are you willing to roll the dice because you want to put somebody in jail? You could end up with the police officer back on duty that you have questions about.”

As a result, Coronato explained, a plea deal for a lesser charge might be “the smarter way to go.”

Law enforcement experts also say another dynamic may be at play: the close relationships between the county prosecutors who charge cops with misconduct and the officers or their police agencies. Prosecutors depend on officers to investigate and testify in their cases. That could color the decision-making when it comes to charging officers and cutting deals, experts said.

Profitt, the movie-making former Millville officer, agreed prosecutors may be too familiar with officers they charge with official misconduct. “I think if you had it set up so that maybe all police cases were handled by the state attorney general, then there would be less of a conflict of interest,” he said.

Similarly, in many cases the accused officers and the investigators who work in the offices of the prosecutors, though not the attorneys charging them, are represented by the same union, said Rich Rivera, a former West New York officer who testifies in court as a use-of-force expert. Documents show the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association represents the investigators in at least 18 of the 21 county prosecutors’ offices in the state — as well as officers in those areas. Those union connections could contribute to lighter outcomes for officers charged with crimes, according to Rivera.

“They all go to the same conference,” Rivera said. “They all follow the same bylaws, they’re all expected to follow the same rules. They are in lock and sync. And if you deviate from that, well then you’ll get kicked out of the union. So why would you want to ostracize yourself — lose all of your social bearings, potentially lose family ties — when it’s just easier to go along and get along?”

Trying to Remove Mandatory Punishments for Official Misconduct

Protests against police brutality roared through New Jersey streets following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The calls for police accountability have never been louder.

State senators gathered for a hearing on police problems that was billed as the first in a series. The attorney general attended, noting the demonstrations were part of the largest protest movement in the nation’s history.

The attorney general’s office has instituted policing reforms in recent years, and the Legislature has passed some changes, like requiring body cameras and diversity in hiring. But even as these changes advance, New Jersey’s lawmakers are close to undoing the mandatory minimum jail time for official misconduct.

In recent weeks, the Assembly passed a criminal justice reform bill that focused on sentencing disparities. When the state Senate took on the bill, it quietly added an amendment that removed the mandatory minimum sentences for police officers and other public officials convicted of official misconduct. It passed the bill 22-15.

The amendment doesn’t have a senator’s name on it. The two primary Senate sponsors of the bill — Sandra B. Cunningham, D-Hudson, and Nellie Pou, D-Passaic — didn’t respond to calls about the amendment. Richard McGrath, spokesman for the Senate Democrats responsible for the bill, wouldn’t say who filed it. Records related to the amendment are not accessible to the public because lawmakers previously exempted them from the state’s public records law.

The Assembly has a session scheduled for Thursday in which lawmakers could vote on the changes made by the Senate. Beyond problem cops, the bill would also protect lawmakers themselves if they happened to be charged with misconduct related to their office.

One senator who voted yes said the quiet change to reduce accountability for public officials accused of criminally abusing their positions snuck past him.

“Frankly I missed the amended version of the bill,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, a former county sheriff. Now he hopes the governor would veto the very bill he voted to approve.

The bill expected to be considered Thursday most notably includes sentencing reforms recommended by a state commission to correct racial inequalities. One commission member told a reporter he wasn’t aware the measures now include reduced penalties for criminal misconduct by public officials.

“The commission was actually to come up with ways that we could reduce the disparity in sentencing for people, quite frankly African Americans and people of color,” said Jiles Ship, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“So if it’s going in another direction,” he said, “that’s not good.”

ProPublica and the Asbury Park Press are investigating police misconduct in New Jersey. Is there something we should know about? Please complete our form to let us know.

Alex Mierjeski and Claire Perlman contributed reporting.

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