Most NJ Police Departments Violate Law on Police Complaints

June 4, 2009

NEWARK - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey released a report - The Crisis Inside Police Internal Affairs (1.2mb PDF) - revealing that the vast majority of New Jersey police departments do not follow state law regarding citizens' complaints against police officers. The ACLU-NJ issued recommendations, including greater transparency, reporting and oversight to fix the problems.

"This is the first report of its kind in the nation," said Samuel Walker who is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of two books on citizen oversight of the police. "It's stunning that a state with a strong law on internal affairs could have so many departments out of compliance with the law."

The New Jersey law governing police complaints, called the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures, requires that all police departments have an accessible internal affairs process that accepts complaints from both citizens and officers at any time, thoroughly investigates them, interviews all parties and makes a finding at the conclusion of the investigation.

To determine whether that law was followed, the ACLU-NJ called over 500 police departments to ask how a person could file a complaint; reviewed police internal affairs statistics from around the state; reviewed 50 internal affairs files from individuals who filed complaints; and obtained internal affairs statistics from every county.

Our telephone survey demonstrated that most departments violate state law on internal affairs by insisting that complaints be filed in person (63 percent), refusing to accept anonymous complaints (49 percent) and denying juveniles access to the complaint system unless their parents participate (79 percent).

Many law enforcement agencies employ automated phone systems, which rarely gave callers the option of filing a police complaint, and police personnel the ACLU-NJ spoke with were often unsure of the complaint procedures. ACLU-NJ callers found it difficult to speak to a live person, and callers who spoke different languages could not always connect to staff who understood.

Apart from the language barriers, calls to 425 law enforcement agencies asking specifically about immigration turned up disturbing barriers to immigrants. Although 88 percent of agencies stated that immigration status was irrelevant to filing an internal affairs complaint, 46 percent of those agencies stated that ICE may be contacted if the complainant was undocumented, further discouraging complainants from reporting abuse.

"A gulf of intimidation divides the police from the public, and we need oversight and accountability to build a bridge between the two," said Bobby Conner, ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney. "Everyone deserves to have their complaint heard. Everyone needs to know that what they went through matters. We can't stop the bad apples from ruining the bunch if we can't even lodge a complaint against them."

As for solutions, the ACLU-NJ looks to improve transparency, accountability and oversight by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. The report calls for mandatory training to ensure all police employees - from receptionists to police chiefs - understand the process for filing complaints with police.

The ACLU-NJ also found that investigations are not thorough (for example, many failed to meet the requirement under law that all parties be interviewed in an investigation) and suggests statewide timeline standards for acknowledgements, investigations and dispositions of complaints. As well, reports on internal affairs, which the IAPP requires, are both incorrect and insufficiently descriptive across the board, and the state must issue standards to improve them.

Another key recommendation is for the counties and state to provide the needed oversight and enforcement of local internal affairs processes, as well as keeping their own people and policies current on the law.

"It's frustrating that the police officers who elude investigation are the very ones who unfairly give all police, including a lot of good police, a bad name," said Richard Rivera, a retired police officer who worked on the report. "New Jerseyans deserve to have faith in their police officers, and that faith comes when they know their voices can be heard."

The ACLU-NJ's recommendations draw from its survey of departments as well as years of experience fighting against police abuse. Currently, the ACLU-NJ is in litigation with the City of Newark over two police stops - one involving two Pop Warner football players and their then-19-year-old coach held at gunpoint by police, and one involving a woman sexually harassed by police. In the past, the ACLU-NJ represented three African American children harassed by police in Manalapan in 2003 while their white friends were told to leave, law students held at gunpoint in a 1996 police stop, and dozens of other victims of police misconduct over the years.

"This report is unique in its scope, in the depth of its statistics and in its honesty describing the realities that make filing an internal affairs complaint so emotionally taxing," said Walker. "When a person's only avenue for justice is to turn to the same police department that has victimized them, it's intimidating - and that's why it's so crucial that police officers follow these laws."

Read the ACLU-NJ's other recommendations to fix the crisis with police departments and view actual responses given to callers in its report: The Crisis Inside Police Internal Affairs (1.2mb PDF) .

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