Egg Harbor Township police must disclose the report taken the night an off-duty township police officer was found asleep at a traffic light in Northfield, a state judge recently ruled, although the discipline that followed may remain confidential.
John Paff, an open-government advocate who filed the initial lawsuit in 2011 out of suspicion the off-duty officer was drunk, said the township has not provided the report. He expects it soon, once they agree to redactions.
“I think we’re at the endgame,” Paff said. “I think he (township Solicitor Marc Friedman) is going to honor the spirit of the order.”
Friedman said the township is reviewing the ruling and considering whether or not to appeal. The township has until Aug. 9 to decide.
In his decision, Superior Court Judge Julio L. Mendez emphasized the importance of openness and transparency in policing, quoting the state Supreme Court: “A police officer is a special kind of public employee. His primary duty is to enforce and uphold the law. He represents law and order to the citizenry and must present an image of personal integrity and dependability in order to have the respect of the public.”
Mendez added that a police officer “serves in a position of trust, and disclosure will only fortify the trust and credibility afforded to the Egg Harbor Township police department by its citizenry.”
The report and later litigation arose from an incident that occurred at 2:04 a.m. Feb. 17, 2011, at Shore and Tilton Roads in Northfield.
Northfield police found a black Mercedes-Benz that sat through several rotations of the traffic light. A Northfield officer approached, according to police radio transmissions later released through a government records request, and eventually roused the sleeping driver.
The driver was Jeffrey A. Lancaster, then 35, of Galloway Township, an off-duty Egg Harbor Township police officer whom the township hired in December 2002.
Egg Harbor Township police Sgt. Michael T. Hughes then called the township police dispatch center, according to audio recordings quoted in Paff’s suit. The dispatcher told Hughes that Lancaster had been found asleep at the wheel, and Hughes asked whether Lancaster had violated state drunken-driving laws.
The dispatcher said he didn’t know. He said Northfield police wanted to know whether Lancaster was a township police officer and who the township’s current on-duty commanding officer was.
Hughes offered his cellphone number for Northfield police to call.
The dispatcher then said Northfield police found Lancaster was “A.O.B.” — he had alcohol on his breath.
Hughes asked who the officer in charge in Northfield was, the suit states, then went to the scene to “give (Lancaster) a ride home.”
A later, unspecified Northfield officer said Lancaster was “definitely sound asleep,” according to the audio quoted in the suit, attributing his falling asleep to “moonlighting.” An unspecified Northfield police officer then asked “Mike,” whom the suit presumed was Hughes, to come to the scene and “give (Lancaster) a ride home.”
Paff, the chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Police Accountability Project, filed Open Public Records Act requests that revealed Hughes wrote the only report. Northfield did not file criminal charges.
Egg Harbor Township police Chief Michael J. Morris refused to release the report since it was part of an investigative file. Morris later told Paff the department disciplined Lancaster for violating “several departmental rules and regulations.”
In his June 25 decision, Mendez ruled that several tests showed Hughes’ report was clearly a public record. Mendez wrote that Lancaster’s discipline, however, was confidential because it “implicates important privacy concerns” and triggers the state records laws’ personnel record exemption, Mendez said.
But he wrote that after reviewing them, “this court is satisfied that the disciplinary measures imposed by the Egg Harbor Township Police Department were within the appropriate range.”
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