New Jersey Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project: Police secrecy makes citizen oversight difficult
To the editor:
On April 26, 2010, a Piscataway man sued Monroe Township (Middlesex County), its police department and officers Piro and Burns (presumably Peter S. Piro and Brian P. Burns) for racially discriminating against him at a local supermarket on January 29, 2010.
The man, Raymond Martin, alleged that he went to the local Stop & Shop to purchase a money order to send back to relatives in his home country of Jamaica. After buying the money order, Martin, who is African American, claims he was eating pizza at the supermarket's cafe when Officers Piro and Burns approached him.
According to Martin's lawsuit, the following verbal exchange took place. Police: "What are you doing here?" Martin: "I'm eating." Police: "Raymond is not a black or Jamaican name. We're taking your downtown, we're going to fingerprint you and lock you up." Martin "Why?" Police: "Shut the f--- up."
Instead of taking him to the police station, Piro and Burns allegedly took Martin to his residence that he shared with a home health aide named Sylvania Allan. The two officers allegedly pushed Martin through the front doorway and entered the residence despite Allan telling them that weren't allowed to come in. After allegedly asking "persistent questions" to both Martin and Allan, the officers were satisfied and left.
After reading the suit, I thought "OK, that's Mr. Martin's side of the story." Knowing that lawsuit plaintiffs and their lawyers don't always tell the unvarnished truth about encounters with police, I submitted a records request on May 7, 2010 to Monroe Township to get the police officers' side of the story.
As expected, my requests were met with considerable resistance. After several exchanges with police officials and Township lawyer Kevin G. Boris, I ended up getting two relevant documents. The first is a police dispatch report showing that police were dispatched to the Stop & Shop on Perrineville Road on January 29, 2010 at 1:46 p.m. The other is an "Incident Report" prepared six days after the incident showing that Piro and Burns were dispatched to investigate a report of a "suspicious person." The narrative of the report, which spans two pages, was almost totally redacted, i.e. blacked out.
Martin's lawsuit, the dispatch report and the Incident Report are all on-line here:
Why all the secrecy? Police officers play a unique role in society. They have the power to arrest and to use deadly weapons. With such authority comes a critical need for public oversight.
In this case, Raymond Martin has publicly accused Officers Piro and Burns of engaging in "conduct [that] was obviously racist and egregious." Yet, when I attempted to learn the police department's side of the story, I was met with resistance and ultimately given two documents that are redacted so heavily that they're meaningless.
The Monroe Police should release enough details regarding their encounter with Raymond Martin to allow citizens to judge whether Officers Piro and Burns acted reasonably under the circumstances.
John Paff, Chair
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project
Somerset, New Jersey
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