U.S. Department of Justice Investigation Finds Widespread Constitutional Violations by Newark Police Department

July 22, 2014

ACLU-NJ welcomes historic federal intervention to oversee sweeping reforms, which follow ACLU-NJ petition for federal investigation

NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey welcomes the announcement that the City of Newark and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have agreed to federal oversight to preside over sweeping reforms of the Newark Police Department (“NPD”). The federal intervention comes in response to a petition filed with the DOJ by the ACLU of New Jersey (“ACLU-NJ”) in September 2010 documenting more than 400 incidents of abuse and misconduct by the Newark Police Department and calling for DOJ oversight.

The DOJ’s report includes the following findings, based on a multi-year federal civil rights investigation of the NPD:

  • Widespread violations of the Fourth Amendment, including that up to 75 percent of stop-and-frisks in Newark are unconstitutional;
  • Vast racial disparities in policing practices, with black Newarkers bearing the brunt of the police department’s enforcement activities. While black residents comprise 54 percent of Newark’s population, they constitute nearly 85 percent of police stop-and frisks;
  • A pattern and practice of excessive use of force by police officers;
  • Retaliation against Newarkers for objecting to police actions and for other First Amendment-protected activities;
  • Widespread failures of the Newark Police Department’s Internal Affairs process; and
  • Theft of property and money by Newark police officers.

“This is a historic moment for Newark, one that could lead to the creation of a police force that is respectful of civil rights and that is accountable to the people of Newark,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The appointment of an independent monitor to oversee reforms of the Newark Police Department affirms the findings of the ACLU of New Jersey’s 2010 petition documenting widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the Newark Police Department. But today’s historic report by the Justice Department is just the first step, and not the last, toward bringing permanent accountability to the Newark Police Department. In order to ensure that oversight outlasts any one federal monitor, effective reform must include the creation of permanent, independent, and strong civilian oversight of the Newark Police Department.”

Together with Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and NPD Director Eugene Venable, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Paul Fishman reported the remedial measures Newark will take as part of an “agreement in principle” with the DOJ. These measures will be part of a final, court-enforced and independently monitored settlement agreement. Some of the remedial measures include:

  • Civilian review of the NPD;
  • Strengthened Internal Affairs procedures;
  • New measures and training to end unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices;
  • Enhanced data collection and analysis to ensure fair and just policing practices;
  • An early warning system to raise red flags of unconstitutional officer behavior and encourage constitutional policing;
  • Community engagement to strengthen police-community relations;

As development and implementation of the sweeping changes that will be agreed to in the consent decree move forward, the ACLU-NJ urges the City and the DOJ to ensure that community members in Newark are partners in the process of reform. In order for these critical reforms to take root, community members must have a seat at the decision-making table.

“The City of Newark should welcome this opportunity to establish meaningful reforms of the police department, including creating and implementing policies and practices that will better ensure proper and more productive interactions between police and the communities they serve,” said Ed Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “A partnership between the City of Newark and the Justice Department has the potential to change the police department forever, for the better.”

The ACLU-NJ first called for federal intervention in the Newark Police Department in 1967 after years of unaddressed complaints of police misconduct contributed greatly to that summer’s clashes between residents and law enforcement. In response, the ACLU-NJ filed lawsuits in 1967 calling for federal oversight of the Newark Police Department. In September 2010, the ACLU-NJ submitted a petition to the DOJ that documented 418 allegations of police misconduct, including false arrests, excessive force, unlawful stops and searches, discrimination and retaliation, as well as a broken internal affairs system. The petition was based on the study of a 2.5-year period ending in 2010. In May 2011, the DOJ announced that it would open an investigation into the reports of civil rights and civil liberties violations in the department.

“We thank Deborah Jacobs, the former executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, for her persistence in leading the charge during her directorship to make a strong, unequivocal case for the need for federal intervention,” said Ofer.

The DOJ’s remedial measures track closely what the ACLU-NJ has called for in the past, including civilian oversight, community engagement, fair and consistent discipline, an officer early warning system, and improvements to the internal affairs system.

The ACLU-NJ welcomes the Justice Department’s recommendation that Newark establish civilian review of the NPD but insists that creation of any civilian complaint review board must be done carefully and in a manner that avoids the experiences of municipalities that have established civilian review boards without creating meaningful oversight. Newarkers have been calling for a civilian complaint review board since at least 1965, and such a review board must be independent and equipped with strong accountability tools. For a civilian review board to be effective, its members need subpoena power and independent authority to discipline police officers found to have engaged in wrongdoing, as well as the ability to audit police policies and practices and make recommendations for reforms. An oversight entity must be adequately funded and must afford due process protections for all parties, including police officers.

“A weak civilian complaint review board is worse than no civilian complaint review board because it gives the impression of oversight but in fact provides no accountability,” said Ofer. “The Department of Justice will be in Newark for only a few years, but the residents of Newark will need to hold their police department accountable for decades to come.”

Since filing the petition, the ACLU-NJ has continued to document and challenge abusive police practices in Newark, including by releasing a report in February 2014 that provided the first-ever analysis of stop-and-frisk practices in Newark. The ACLU-NJ report highlighted several disturbing patterns that raise serious constitutional concerns. Specifically, the report raised concerns about the high volume of stops, the disproportionate use of stop-and-frisk against black Newarkers, and the fact that the vast of majority of stops were of innocent people. The DOJ’s findings announced today determined that up to 75 percent of NPD stops are unconstitutional.

In 2012, under the leadership of Police Director Samuel DeMaio, the Newark Police Department worked with the ACLU-NJ to craft policies to protect the rights of members of the public to record police officers on duty. The policy, which mandates officer training concerning the public’s First Amendment rights, came as a result of the ACLU-NJ’s representation of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager pulled off a city bus and detained by police for using her cellphone to record video of officers responding to an incident. Today’s findings by the DOJ reveal continued targeting of members of the public by NPD officers for criticizing the police or engaging in other First Amendment-protected activity.

In addition, in July 2013, the Newark Police Department, in collaboration with the ACLU-NJ, adopted a data transparency policy requiring the department to release monthly data detailing the number of stop-and-frisks it conducts and the demographic information of the person being stopped, as well as information on the disposition of the stop. The policy also requires the department to report on the number of internal affairs complaints it receives and its use of force reports. The Police Department has yet to fully comply with the transparency policy. Also that month, the ACLU-NJ and other immigrants’ rights advocates worked with the Newark Police Department to stop honoring voluntary immigration detainer requests, thus helping ensure that immigrant communities in Newark may contact the police without fearing deportation.

A copy of the ACLU-NJ’s petition that led to the Justice Department investigation and more information about the ACLU-NJ’s work to improve police practices may be found at www.aclu-nj.org/policepractices.

Category: Police Practices

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