NEWARK—The ACLU-NJ filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice today, (300k PDF) making an appeal for the agency to rein in and reform the long-troubled Newark Police Department with federal intervention.
"The problem in Newark is much bigger than the actions of any one police officer, or even any one administration, and it cannot be contained internally," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "Our petition demonstrates an established culture of lawlessness that can only be reformed through external intervention."
The 96-page petition exposes a level of abuse in the Newark Police Department warranting intervention from the DOJ Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section. Federal law empowers the U.S. attorney general to step in when a police department systemically deprives people of their rights, including through the patterns of false arrests, inconsistent discipline, discrimination against employees, delinquent internal affairs practices, and, above all, acts of violence against citizens bringing injuries and deaths that have distinguished Newark as particularly egregious.
Combing through public records, the ACLU-NJ learned that Newark paid out over $4 million — mostly in settlements — for cases filed between January 1, 2008 and July 1, 2010. As documented in the petition, twelve of those incidents involved department employees, while 26 were brought by citizens.
The settled cases amount to only a fraction of the 407 incidents of misconduct collected in the petition, including 261 complaints to internal affairs during the 2008-2009 calendar year. In addition, 37 other lawsuits brought during that two-and-a-half year period — 7 by department employees and 30 by citizens — remain pending. Additionally, 50 separate tort claims filed detail abusive treatment from officers, while 21 other complaints charge misconduct independently.
Contained within the petition are heartbreaking stories of violence, discrimination, and retaliation.
In one case settled in March 2010, an officer fractured several locations of a man's jaw and face as other officers passively looked on after he asked how to file a complaint with internal affairs. In a pending case filed last year, police allegedly beat a man so severely that he suffered permanent, debilitating spinal cord injuries and paralysis. Another pending case, filed in 2009, details officers' threats to throw a juvenile from a bridge if he did not admit involvement in a crime. When he refused, they beat him and urinated on him in a secluded location. Later, the police department "lost" the soiled t-shirt submitted to internal affairs as evidence.
The complaint describes seven deaths at the hands of the NPD, from either intentional shootings or officers' dismissals of urgent health complaints, as well as stories of several people who lost their jobs when their wrongful detention kept them from work.
The petition displays a lethargic response to accusations of misconduct. Out of the 261 internal affairs complaints filed in 2008 and 2009, internal police investigators substantiated the merits of only one — an improper search allegation. Equally troubling, the petition documents near-routine discouragement of complaints in addition to clear campaigns of retaliation, harassment, threats, and bribery meant to intimidate those who do successfully file complaints into silence. This inattention has allowed officers with troubled disciplinary histories to remain on patrol, including one with 62 career complaints, another with 45, one who had faced seven suspensions for insubordination and other offenses, and another who had faced five suspensions for neglect of duty.
"I challenge anyone to read the horror stories in this petition and still claim that misconduct hasn't spun out of control in Newark." said Jacobs "It's high time to address the problems within NPD once and for all."
The ACLU-NJ has been the most vocal advocate for the reform of the Newark Police Department since our founding 50 years ago. After the infamous 1967 unrest that arose from and resulted in police violence, the ACLU-NJ recorded citizens' complaints and filed three lawsuits demanding order in the unruly Newark Police Department. In addition to informing citizens of their rights and examining the effectiveness of police policies, we have fought the department's violations of civil rights in numerous lawsuits.
"The problems within the NPD didn't develop overnight, and we don't expect change overnight," said Jacobs, "but progress over the past three years is too little to protect citizens, and it's obvious that we need outside expertise and help."
The ACLU-NJ hopes that Department of Justice intervention will mean reforms like an improved internal affairs process responsive to citizens' complaints; enhanced risk-management systems that detect troubling patterns of employee misconduct; increased training; a discipline matrix to ensure equality in employee discipline; and, above all, an independent monitor with the power to fully audit the department's operations and to mandate reforms truly capable of rebuilding the department from the ground up.
New Jersey has a notable history of successful federal intervention. A federal consent decree in 1999 addressing racial profiling brought major reforms to the New Jersey State Police that affected all of its operations. Similar consent decrees transformed troubled police departments in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles and inspired officials in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. to personally petition the DOJ to intervene.