Hamm Reacts to Supreme Court Ruling on Civilian Complaint Review Board

Larry Hamm

People’s Organization for Progress Founder Larry Hamm’s full statement in reaction to today’s state Supreme Court ruling:

The NJ State Supreme Court decision denying subpoena power to the Newark police review board was more than disappointing. It was a setback to the movement against police brutality and efforts for police reform. Police forces evolved out of racist slave patrols. The police historically have been a problem in African American and other communities of color, seen by many as an occupying army engaged in racial oppression, violence and control.

Police brutality and repression, murder of unarmed civilians, use of excessive force, racial profiling, unjust arrest, violation of constitutional rights, abuse of power, corruption and criminal activity have have been long standing, on-going, and documented grievances. As a remedy to this problem people have demanded accountability through civilian oversight of the police by establishing police review boards.

After its investigation of the Newark Police Department the US Justice Department said it should have civilian oversight. For more than half a century people in Newark have been demanding, protesting and demonstrating for a police review board. And for almost as many years they have been saying that a police review board must have subpoena power and investigatory power believing that without them they are toothless and ineffective.

The People’s Organization has demanded this since our organization was founded 38 years ago (founded in August 1982). Such a body was created with the establishment of the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board, first by Executive Order of Mayor Ras Baraka, and then made permanent with the passage of an ordinance by the Newark City Council. Then the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12 went into court to block it because like most police organizations it is opposed to civilian oversight. They won in Superior Court but lost in the appellate division.

Unfortunately, whereas the Appeals Court took two steps forward the State Supreme Court took two steps back.

This was not just a victory for police. This was a victory for unaccountable policing. This was a victory for police who see themselves above the law. It was a victory for those police who engage in brutal acts with impunity and see themselves as judge, jury, and executioner.

The role that the police organizations have played in this case show us that they are not just a paramilitary force they are a political force, and a dangerous one. They use their power to protect and serve themselves. They work to strengthen the bulwark of laws, policies, contractual provisions, court decisions, and a police culture that gives them a “qualified immunity” from prosecution that the average citizen does not have.

This is why most police brutality cases do not end with prosecution of the police involved. It is most unfortunate that the state’s highest court made this decision and thereby has shown itself to be an impediment to serious police reform. This set back in the courts compels us to seek legislative remedies. We need legislators with the courage to stand up to police organizations who oppose civilian oversight to sponsor bills that will enable municipalities to establish review boards with subpoena and investigatory powers.

We need enough legislators to pass those bills and we need a governor that will sign them into law. However, more than action by the courts and the legislature we need action by the people. We need people to continue to demand and demonstrate and protest for police review boards. We need people to keep the pressure on in every way possible not only for the establishment of Newark’s police review board with subpoena power but for such boards over all police forces at the municipal, county, and state levels. We are dismayed but not deterred by the court’s decision. We lost this round but the fight is not over. The struggle continues.

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