New Jersey's highest court has dealt a blow to Newark's Civilian Complaint Review Board, limiting the 11-member panel’s broad powers in investigating police misconduct. 

The ruling weakens the state’s first—and only—civilian oversight panel and punts the fight over police accountability to the state’s lawmakers and top law enforcement officer.

“We got fight in us,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said during a press call on Wednesday. “We're going to engage our state legislators around changing the law altogether, and we're going to engage the Attorney General's office to go a little further.”

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court said Newark’s City Council went too far when it authorized the CCRB through a 2016 ordinance. The court ruled the council does not have the legal right to give a civilian panel subpoena power. The justices also ruled CCRB investigations cannot take place while the police department conducts its own investigation.

“Instead of seizing a moment to be a real difference-maker on accountable policing, putting civilians first, they fell back on New Jersey's racist past that gave birth to racial profiling,” said Zayid Muhammad, an organizer with Newark Communities for Accountable Policing.  

Listen to Karen Yi discuss the court's decision with Jami Floyd on WNYC's All Things Considered:

The decision caps a years-long fight between Newark and its police union that began in 2016. 

“We welcome the interaction with the community. We want that. We want a positive relationship,” said James Stewart Jr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12, which sued the city in court. “But we also know we're here to protect our members and they're afforded certain rights like anybody else.”

The issue remains whether Newark’s CCRB will have any teeth when it investigates alleged police abuse. An investigation by ProPublica found the NYPD often withheld evidence from New York City’s CCRB—which has subpoena power—and failed to hand over body-camera footage, hampering misconduct investigations.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in 2015, with other police officials, when he announced the formation of a CCRB

Newark city officials said getting police records won’t be the problem. Getting officers to testify—without a subpoena—will. 

The city plans to lobby the state Legislature to change the law to legally empower CCRBs with subpoena power, or allow local municipal bodies to do so. They’re also planning to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Baraka said the Attorney General’s Office modified policies governing internal affairs that allows a civilian oversight board to access investigative records. He said they’re also working on a memorandum of agreement between the CCRB and the police department over what documents must be disclosed during an investigation. 

Baraka said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal should issue a directive so it’s clear what documents police departments must turn over, particularly as other cities look to create their own civilian boards. 

“[Grewal] should just rule on it,” Baraka said.

But Grewal supported the police union’s stance in the court battle, arguing Newark “exceeded its authority” when it gave a civilian group investigatory and disciplinary powers. During his testimony to lawmakers this summer, he signaled he was reconsidering his stance but has not issued a new position on the matter. 

A spokesman for Grewal said his office has been “exploring mechanisms that would allow cities like Newark a larger role in oversight of their police department.” The spokesman said those efforts will continue. 

There’s still distrust between some residents and the city’s police -- one the stems back decades. A 2014 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that found a pattern of unconstitutional police practices that disproportionately impacted Black residents. The DOJ report also found only one excessive force complaint was sustained by police between 2007- 2012. 

The city agreed to reforms through a court-enforced consent decree, that mandated in part additional community engagement. The city, under Mayor Baraka, agreed to do that through a civilian complaint review board. 

Baraka said CCRB has already been hearing complaints and hired lawyers and investigators to begin the police review process. 

“I have to ask the question, how effective will they be?” asked Lawrence Hamm, an organizer with the People’s Organization for Progress, which has been fighting for a CCRB for decades. “We're not going to go away. We don't want to fade into the darkness because we didn't get it the first time.”