NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) welcomed the announcement today that the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Newark Police Department’s reported patterns of abuse and misconduct. The Department of Justice’s decision to intervene was done so at the request of the ACLU-NJ, which documented the incidents of abuse in a petition filed in September 2010.
“We hope this investigation marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Newark Police Department,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. “The recurrent problems in the Newark Police did not arise from one individual, or even a group of individuals, but from an inherited institutional culture of misconduct. We hope the Justice Department’s intervention promises a fresh start, with individual officers getting the training they need to renew the faith in police that Newark’s citizens need.”
The ACLU-NJ’s petition cited 418 serious, routine civil rights violations reported by citizens in a two-and-a-half year period, including false arrests, inconsistent discipline of officers, discrimination and, most egregiously, acts of violence against citizens, some of which resulted in injury and death.
In the face of these civil rights violations, the department’s deficient Internal Affairs Unit provided citizens with little recourse. Out of the 261 internal affairs complaints filed reporting serious police misconduct between 2008 and 2009, only one – alleging an improper search – was sustained. The ACLU-NJ documented police officer’s retaliation and threats to citizens making an internal affairs complaint, as well as discouragement from making complaints altogether.
After looking into the petition’s claims, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division determined the situation in the Newark Police Department called for its involvement, based on a 1994 law allowing the Justice Department to intervene if a police department demonstrates a “pattern or practice” of violating the law or citizens’ constitutional rights.
The ACLU-NJ hopes the federal government will provide the initial oversight and guidance for the Newark Police Department to establish real reform, including an overhaul of internal affairs, more training for police officers, and new systems to identify and discipline problematic officers.
“The federal government has brought progress before to police departments struggling to break free of ingrained institutional acceptance of civil rights abuses,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom. “We hope the Newark Police Department becomes another success story, built on a foundation of its renewed commitment to justice and equality.”
The ACLU-NJ has offered itself as a resource to the Department of Justice in the next stages of the investigative process, redoubling its own commitment to increasing accountability for the Newark Police and rebuilding the public’s trust in law enforcement.
The ACLU-NJ currently has two active civil rights cases pending against the Newark Police, one defending a newspaper publisher’s freedom of the press and the other defending a high school honor student's right to videotape the police in public.