Montclair police officer was suspended for 20 days after ‘China 19 check’ comment
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The Montclair police officer who'd made a Facebook comment about a "China 19 check" — an apparent racial reference to coronavirus — was suspended for 20 days in 2021, according to a compilation of police disciplinary records newly released by the state Attorney General's Office.
In addition, Officer Corey Graves was suspended for six days "for violating the department's Vehicle Operations & Response Guidelines relating to an on-duty motor vehicle accident," according to the report — a possible reference to the July crash of two police vehicles on the way to an emergency call about a struck pedestrian. The collision left at least one of the police vehicles severely damaged.
Montclair police had previously acknowledged to some community members that Coad was disciplined for his "China 19" comment, made on a local Facebook group post in July, after someone asked about helicopters flying overhead. Lt. James Milano, the department’s professional standards officer, wrote in letters to multiple complainants: “The investigation revealed that the officer violated departmental rules and regulations. [Officer William] Coad will be subject to appropriate discipline under our agency’s procedures.” That letter was in turn provided to Montclair Local by recipients in September.
But at the time, Police Chief Todd Conforti and Deputy Chief Wilhelm Young didn't respond to messages asking what “appropriate discipline” under the agency’s procedures would entail.
The police department also hadn't previously disclosed whether any officers were disciplined in connection with the July collision, when Officers Scott McGrath and Graves collided at the intersection of North Fullerton Avenue and Walnut Street on July 6, according to a Montclair Police Department crash report provided to Montclair Local following a public records request. Conforti told Montclair Local at the time the matter remainder under investigation, and declined further comment.
McGrath had been traveling north on North Fullerton Avenue and said he had his emergency lights activated and sounded his sirens before entering the intersection, according to the report. In-car dash camera footage showed McGrath used his lights but did not sound the siren, the report said.
Graves was traveling west on Walnut Street with his emergency lights activated and siren sounding while approaching the intersection. Both the use of the light and siren were confirmed by the dash camera footage, according to the report.
Graves and McGrath were both “unsure on the specifics” of how the collision occurred, the report said. But both recalled hearing the other officer’s sirens prior to the collision, it said.
The Attorney General's Office's report, based on data reported to it by local police agencies, doesn't elaborate on in what way Graves violated vehicle guidelines, or even provide enough detail to confirm it was for that same incident. No dates or other details are provided. It also doesn't reference any disciplinary action against McGrath — even though the police report provided to Montclair Local said it was McGrath's vehicle, not Graves', that footage showed didn't have its siren on.
A message to both Conforti and acting Lt. Terence S. Turner, who handles media relations for the department, seeking any further context on the officers' discipline Friday hasn't yet been returned.
The AG's report also shows a Montclair State University Police Department officer, Amanda Rusticus, was suspended for 30 days, with the suspension held in abeyance, "for violation of the MSUPD off-duty code of conduct policy." University spokesman Andrew Mees Friday said he'd have to coordinate with the county prosecutor's office before releasing information.
The notes about disciplinary action are among those for 389 law enforcement officers throughout New Jersey. It's the second year New Jersey Departments have been required to contribute information for the "Major Discipline Reporting" compilation, under a directive by former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
But not all disciplinary actions are captured by the report. Police departments are only required to provide information on incidents where police were fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days.
And critics say too many departments provide scant information, barely acknowledging the sorts of policies for which officers were reprimanded — and not details about the incidents themselves.
“The ongoing problem is still that there’s really no oversight by the Attorney General’s Office in how much these agencies are disclosing,” attorney CJ Griffin, a proponent of government transparency and advocate for public access to police misconduct records, told New Jersey Monitor. “Some of these agencies just write ‘violation of rules and regulations,’ which tells us nothing. It’s essentially not complying with the policy.”
Bills S371 / A996 — introduced again this legislative session after being carried over from last year — would expand the types of law enforcement records available for release under the state's Open Public Records Act. They'd include complaints against police officers, transcripts of disciplinary trials and hearings, video recordings that result in complaints or internal investigations and records of determinations once they've been made. The bills also require disciplinary records for law enforcement to be maintained for at least 20 years, and video records related to them for at least five years.
The measures count among their primary sponsors Montclair resident and State Sen. Nia Gill, as well as Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, both currently serving the 34th Legislative District that includes Montclair (though redistricting announced Friday moves Montclair and Gill alike into a new 27th, and Timberlake into a reconfigured 34th).
The bills haven't yet met it out of committee in either chamber of the Legislature.