The stakes could not be higher for the future of police transparency in New Jersey.
The August 7 shooting of city resident Radazz Hearns has led to a “messy cover-up” by police and investigators, according to columnist Shaun King.
That night, it was a task force of officers from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office and the NJ State Police that shot a fleeing teenager seven times in the back and buttocks.
Hearns was badly injured in the shooting, and has since been indicted following an investigation by the state’s Attorney’s General office, which is arguing that Hearns pointed a gun at police before throwing it away.
Now, a citizen’s lawsuit against the state has far-reaching implications for what the standards of transparency and accountability will be for NJ law enforcement going forward.
John Paff, a community advocate who has a history of demanding transparency from the state government, is suing to force New Jersey to reveal the names of the police officers involved in the shooting of the young man.
The Times of Trenton has already revealed their identities as Mercer County Sheriff’s Officer James Udijohn, and NJ State Police Detective Doug Muraglia.
But Paff says the Attorney’s General Office has “dug their heels in” and refuses to publicly identify the officers except to call them “Officer #1” and “Officer #2.”
At issue is whether the state government, and local or county law enforcement, will be able to keep secret the identities of officers who use varying degrees of deadly force.
Currently, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman has opposed releasing the names of officers who shoot civilians, even if someone is killed by them.
But Paff, the open government advocate who is bringing the case, says it will be a useful barometer of how far New Jersey is between a “libertarian paradise” and a “police state.”
“I fear that if they know their identity will remain secret, officers will be more inclined to shoot people… so that’s why this is kind of important,” Paff told TrentonMakesNews.com.
The case has already been argued, and Honorable Judge Mary Jacobson is in the process of making a critical decision, one that is likely to be appealed regardless of which side she takes.
Paff says it should be easy for Jacobson to rule in his favor, but nothing is guaranteed. He has previously told reporters he felt compelled to file the case because a Mercer County Sheriff’s Officer had leaked information about the teenager’s criminal record, while the officers who did the shooting remained anonymous.
“It’s about the screaming need for police accountability,” said Paff, who said officers have already signed up for a job that might put them in the public eye, or subject them to public scrutiny.
“Everybody except for law enforcement agree that [one of] the things we need to do… is to have a higher level of accountability.”
But the Attorney’s General Office sees the matter differently: Without specifics, they have argued that releasing the identities of officers involved in a shooting could lead to retaliation against them or their families.
“That’s a slippery slope,” Paff said. “Soon you have police operating in pretty much secrecy, and that’s exactly the opposite of accountability.”
Paff said he likes his chances of winning, but considers it an important milestone regardless of the outcome. he will consider it a victory just to call the question, and to “force a Judge to rule” on the question.
“If it happens it happens,” said Paff. “It’s not like this is a football game and not everything is winning.”
Paff says if there is a ruling against him, it could provide motivation and ammunition to advocates who might seek to have the Legislature take action to ensure a higher level of transparency.
“I don’t really look at it as an adversarial thing,” Paff said. “It’s just the way things turn out.”
A the end of the day, Paff says it’s unlikely that the dynamic between police and the communities they serve would be so strained if not for the “war on drugs.”
“If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t have any of this crap. You wouldn’t have so many police encounters.”
“[The war on drugs] took a lot away from the Fourth Amendment, this prohibition thing that we’ve got going on,” said Paff. “It’s causing an increase in government surveillance. It’s ridiculous.”
“As a society, we’re losing a lot of our freedom and our dignity.”
Paff hopes that, in the event that he loses the case and the officers’ names are still officially kept secret, the ruling will spark legislative action, that people will say “maybe we oughta rethink this.”