This op-ed appeared in the Star-Ledger on Wednesday, July 7, 2010

banner_police_prac_200: Newark Police Practices

Two weeks ago, amid news of layoffs in Newark, the City and its taxpayers took yet another financial hit: a high dollar verdict for a former police officer mistreated by the Newark Police.

A jury awarded Darren Nance $600,000, finding that the Newark Police had racially discriminated and retaliated against him.

Once lawyers tally up interest for this verdict, legal fees for his attorneys, plus the two private law firms hired to defend Newark, this case will likely cost millions.

Most cities rely on insurance to cover misconduct-based payouts, but Newark is deemed too high risk to qualify for a policy. Instead, these payouts come out of the pockets of Newark taxpayers. And for every case like Nance's that goes to trial, many others settle out of court behind closed doors.

It is difficult to know, therefore, the full financial impact of police misconduct on Newark taxpayers. We're also left in the dark about the details of the misconduct at the center of those cases, and whether the officers involved are sanctioned.

This is a shame because lawsuits — especially settled ones — can reveal dangerous practices in a department. And when individual officers are openly held accountable for the misconduct, it can deter others from engaging in similar acts.

To determine how much police misconduct cases cost Newark, and shed light on the underlying abuses, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, City Council minutes and other public records to find settlements.

We found that since January 2008, nine lawsuits by Newark police officers against the City were settled, with the settlements totaling $1,696,503. These cases primarily involve discrimination and retaliation.

Lawsuits from officers are just the tip of the iceberg. In that same time period, Newark awarded at least 23 payouts to citizens filing lawsuits over mistreatment ranging from false arrest to death in custody. Those, too, come with a hefty price tag — $766,617 from the 18 cases for which we have settlement amounts.

More cases are coming through the pipeline. We have identified 27 pending cases ordinary citizens have filed against the Newark Police since January 2008, and seven more filed by employees.

And there are likely others; since information about these lawsuits is not publicly disseminated or maintained in a centralized placed, we couldn't find every case filed against the Newark Police.

The costs go well beyond finances, of course. Lawsuits aside, police misconduct jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from community members to effectively protect and serve.

But money matters, too, especially during a budget crisis. If the money Newark spends to defend and compensate for police officers' mistakes went towards reforms instead — training, technology, and resources for police — it would save money, lives, and public confidence in the long run.

The ACLU-NJ has an unwavering commitment to both government transparency and sound police practices. For the public's benefit, starting today, the ACLU-NJ will publish "the dirty dozen" of these cases on our website (http://www.aclu-nj.org/theissues/policepractices/thesettlementprojectemploy/) — representing some of the most egregious claims of discrimination, retaliation, beatings, and internal affairs corruption. We will release one a day for the next twelve business days. Many of these settlements have never before seen the light of day.

Darren Nance, however, got his day in court. He started his career as a Newark police officer in 1989 and encountered racism in the department after just a few months on the job. He spent the next seven years fighting for his rights, until the Newark Police fired him in 1996.

The jury verdict for Nance, along with these settlements, demonstrates that justice for police abuses can indeed come. But it also demonstrates a disturbing pattern: we see the abuses described in Nance's complaints from 15 years ago repeated in the settlements and pending lawsuits of today. The ACLU-NJ, which turned 50 this year, has fought the same kinds of abuses against Newark Police since our founding; change is overdue.

The only way to prevent the same mistakes, the same wounds, and the same payouts from the same stories is root out their sources. Otherwise, the citizens of Newark will continue to pay for bad apple officers who engage in abusive conduct and for managers and elected officials who fail to fix the underlying problems.

Deborah Jacobs is executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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