NEWARK - Smartphones have become a game-changing check on police power, and the release of a new video recording app by the ACLU-NJ gives New Jerseyans even more power to document interactions with law enforcement.
As part of a national movement to hold police departments accountable, the ACLU-NJ joins 11 other ACLU affiliates today in launching state-specific versions of Mobile Justice, an app for Android and Apple phones that allows users to record interactions with police and to send them immediately to the ACLU to evaluate for civil rights and civil liberties violations.
“You have the right to film the police, and everyone should feel empowered to exercise that right,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “From Eric Garner to Walter Scott, videos of police encounters have revealed hard truths about biased policing and police brutality. And it’s sparking a movement to reform police practices. This app is designed to place power in the hands of the people and help document police abuses, while hopefully deterring police misconduct from happening in the first place.”
The app has features that allow users to:
The app also contains New Jersey-specific information outlining the rights of individuals when interacting with police.
Videos captured on the Mobile Justice NJ app will be transmitted to the ACLU-NJ and preserved even if the user’s phone is later seized or destroyed.
“The use of mobile phone cameras has permanently changed American policing for the better by shedding light on the prevalence of police abuses, a very real concern in many New Jersey communities, especially in communities of color,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “The ACLU is excited New Jerseyans will now have a direct line of contact with us to instantly report when civil rights violations have taken place. Greater police accountability will lead to better policing and safer communities.”
The ACLU of New Jersey released an earlier version of a recording application in 2012, but Mobile Justice has improved upon and expanded that technology.
Mobile Justice NJ is mainly intended for use by bystanders, and users of the app should always make sure to not interfere with police investigations. The ACLU of New Jersey recognizes that some users may want to use it while they are involved in a police encounter. Persons directly interacting with police officers should follow police directions and should not make movements that may put them in danger. Anyone interacting with law enforcement should announce that they are reaching for a phone, and that they are attempting to access the app to record the exchange. Users’ safety depends on their ability to clearly communicate any actions they take and remain calm. If unsure, do not reach for your phone.
NEWARK - Upon President Obama’s visit to Newark to announce initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, the ACLU-NJ issues a statement praising these efforts and recommending proposals to make the criminal justice system fairer. During his trip to Newark, President Obama will focus primarily on easing prisoners’ reentry into society after incarceration as one part of larger plans to make the criminal justice system more humane.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The ACLU of New Jersey welcomes President Barack Obama to Newark, and applauds the leadership of the president, United States Senator Cory Booker, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in fixing our nation's broken criminal justice system. The United States currently holds 2.2 million people in prison, up from fewer than 350,000 in 1972. With five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
“While New Jersey has worked to reduce its prison population, the state still imprisons far too many people; and they are disproportionately from low-income communities of color. If New Jersey were its own country, it would have the second highest incarceration rate in the world, just behind Cuba. Beyond the high number of prisoners, New Jersey still suffers under the tremendous racial disparity that plagues the criminal justice system across the nation. People from communities of color make up more than three quarters of all prisoners in New Jersey.
“In order to replace this broken system of mass incarceration with a smarter system of criminal justice, transformative change must happen. Our leaders need to tackle every aspect of the criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry. Reforms must include:
“These solutions will ensure that we create a smart justice system, one that is fair and humane, emphasizes prevention, and uses incarceration only as a last resort. We thank President Obama, Senator Booker, and Mayor Baraka for their vision and bold leadership on this vital civil rights issue.”
NEWARK - On the most important civil liberties issues facing the 216th Legislature, a majority in the General Assembly voted with the ACLU of New Jersey at least 90 percent of the time.
The first-ever ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard tracks the records of Assembly members on 13 key issues votes during the legislative session that began Jan. 2014. In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which Assembly members are at the top of the ticket, the ACLU-NJ is releasing a scorecard of those votes to educate the public at large as well as its 20,000 members and donors who live in every single legislative district in the state. The information can be found online at https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard. It includes a table showing how every Assembly member voted on the issues and allows users to learn details about the scored bills, compare Assembly members’ voting records, find out who made the Honor Roll, and look up scores for legislative districts and an interactive map of New Jersey.
“The good news is that most Assembly members vote for civil liberties and civil rights most of the time. The bad news is that our elected officials aren’t always there when it counts, like with the bill to allow transgender New Jerseyans access to birth certificates that reflect their true gender,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “With this kind of sound information, civil rights voters can hold elected officials accountable because they know where their representatives stand on the key issues of the day when they go to the polls.”
Of the hundreds of bills the Legislature considered, the ACLU-NJ identified 13 votes as the most central to civil rights and civil liberties, including legislation to:
Out of New Jersey’s 80 Assembly members, 32 – or 40 percent – made the ACLU-NJ’s Honor Roll, with ratings of 100 percent.
The lowest rating belonged to Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Brick) at 38 percent. Eight other members of the Assembly scored below 50 percent and also earned a spot on the ACLU-NJ’s less-than 50 percent list.
“Above all, this scorecard is a tool for public accountability. We created it to allow New Jerseyans to learn where their lawmakers stand on key issues involving our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We’re here to ensure those who have taken a stand for our fundamental civil rights continue to act in defense of our rights and liberties, and we’re here to put pressure on those who need a refresher in what it means to defend the rights of the people. Our goal is for every elected official to achieve a 100 percent rating. Even more importantly, our goal is for every resident of New Jersey to know where their representatives stand.”
The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor important votes as the Legislature returns for its biennial lame-duck session after the election and before the 217th Legislature is convened in January. An updated scorecard, including scores for the Senate, will mark the end of the legislative term.
Visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard to read the scorecard online, look up legislative districts, compare Assembly members on an interactive map of New Jersey, and learn about the details of the scored bills in more detail.
NEWARK -- The ACLU of New Jersey reacted strongly today to the comments made Sunday on Face the Nation by Governor Chris Christie, who wrongly blamed the Black Lives Matter social justice movement for deaths of police officers. In fact, The Washington Post reported last month that 2015 is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers, which would be the second lowest number of murders committed against cops in decades.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“Governor Christie needs to apologize for his statement that the Black Lives Matter movement is responsible for the killing of police officers in the United States. Such statements are irresponsible, offensive and flat-out wrong. Americans across the political spectrum have come to recognize that our nation's criminal justice system is broken, and the Black Lives Matter movement is part of a growing consensus that has rightfully focused on demanding greater transparency and accountability from our nation's police forces.
“Instead of disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, Governor Christie should look at the track record of police departments in his own state. The Newark Police Department, the state’s largest municipal force, was cited last year by the United States Department of Justice for engaging in widespread civil rights violations.
“Telling the American people, in effect, to sit down and shut up is no solution to the serious issues too many communities face with law enforcement. The lives of police officers are paramount, but so, too, are the lives of people of color who have disproportionately faced the brunt of a broken criminal justice system.”
TRENTON – The mother of a Trenton teenager shot by police a month ago will be joined by the United Mercer Interfaith Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in calling for an investigation into the leaking of her son’s prior juvenile justice history.
Reports have appeared in the media detailing encounters by law enforcement with Radazz Hearns, 14, who survived seven gunshots to his legs and back. An Aug. 27 Trentonian article attributed information it published about the teenager's record to police reports released “under state sunshine laws.”
State law precludes the release of juvenile justice history, saying those records “shall be strictly safeguarded from public inspections.”
In letters (PDF) to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, New Jersey Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, and Mercer County Acting Prosecutor Angelo Onofri, Ms. Jackson and the groups asked for investigations into the leak. “Because the information provided to the Trentonian is exclusively under the control of law enforcement agencies, we request that you conduct an investigation into New Jersey law enforcement agencies to determine who provided the information to the press,” their letter to Fishman said.
Four other letters (PDF) were sent to the heads of the law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction – New Jersey State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes, Mercer County Sheriff John Kemler, Hopewell Township Police Chief Lance Maloney, and Trenton Police Director Ernest Parrey – asking for internal investigations of their departments, and demanding accountability for making protected records public.
“My son has been the target of a smear campaign using private information about encounters with authorities that could have only come from police in order to discredit him and justify the actions of the officers who shot him,” said Slimes Jackson, Radazz Hearns’ mother.
Hearns was unarmed when police approached him the night of Aug. 7, according to his lawyer, Samuel Anyan, Jr. But a release from the Office of the Attorney General said Hearns pointed a handgun at police before turning to flee as an explanation for why officers opened fire. A gun was recovered at the scene 12 hours after the incident. Police reports said an emergency vehicle parked on top of the weapon, which delayed recovery. Hearns, who was hospitalized for 10 days, has been charged with aggravated assault.
“The community has been kept in the dark all along about this investigation and the officers who were involved in the shooting. It is critical that the police are transparent and impartial in their actions – not secretly supplying reporters with prejudicial details of police interactions with juveniles to create a negative narrative,” said Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, United Mercer Interfaith Organization.
The officers involved in the shooting, reportedly from the New Jersey State Police and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, have not been named.
Meanwhile, media reports citing sources who asked not to be identified have provided detailed accounts of Hearns’ juvenile record, including information about the school he attends.
“The media enjoy First Amendment protections in the reporting of information, but there is no doubt releasing the prior juvenile justice history of a teenage suspect by law enforcement is not just inappropriate but unlawful,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Hightstown Mayor Lawrence Quattrone (PDF) asking him to clarify Hightstown Police Department policy in light of remarks attributed to him in a Times of Trenton news story with the headline: Hightstown mayor: We are not a ‘sanctuary city.’
The story quoted the mayor saying, “If you get stopped for anything, [Hightstown police] will check your status … If you have wants or warrants against you, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, Latino, Greek, or Italian, your status will be checked and if there’s any problem, you will be turned over.”
A directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General in 2007 instructs law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status only when arrested for indictable offenses or DUI offenses. A policy of routinely checking the immigration status of people stopped by police would be outside of that directive and raise serious civil rights concerns.
“Unnecessarily involving your officers in immigration enforcement undermines the public safety, rather than strengthening it,” the letter said.
The letter asks Quattrone to publicly clarify his statements; to make clear that Hightstown Police Department policies go no further in questioning individuals’ immigration status than is required by law; and to provide documentation of the department’s policies for dealing with immigrants or people thought to be immigrants.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today sent a letter (PDF) to state Acting Attorney General John Hoffman urging the release of further information about the shooting of 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, including the names of the state trooper and Mercer County sheriff’s officer who were involved in the shooting in Trenton on August 7.
Hearns, who was shot seven times but survived the shooting, has been charged with aggravated assault; unlawful possession of a handgun; and possession of a defaced firearm. The unnamed police officers contend Hearns had a handgun, according to the Attorney General’s office. Witnesses dispute that account and say Hearns was unarmed and ran away from the officers.
Law enforcement officials have been less than forthcoming about further details of the shooting.
“Nearly two weeks after the incident, your office has provided scant information about the shooting to Radazz's family and the broader Trenton community,” said the letter signed by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer, Legal Director Edward Barocas, and Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin.
“In a matter such as this, the growing number of unanswered questions and absence of transparency can serve to exacerbate any distrust and division between community members and law enforcement. Absent a specific, particularized, and credible threat to the safety of the officers or their families, parents should not be left to wonder who shot their child.”
The letter sites recognized best practices for police departments, including guidelines for releasing the names of the officers involved in a shooting within hours of the shooting.
The ACLU-NJ will continue to be in touch with community members and monitor events as the case proceeds.
NEWARK – Governor Chris Christie today announced an initiative to equip the New Jersey State Police with body-worn cameras, and provided state funding to help municipal police departments purchase the cameras. “The use of body-worn cameras will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike," Christie said.
The announcement included the release of a 24-page directive (PDF) to law enforcement from Attorney General John Hoffman that spells out policies and practices for the use of body-worn cameras.
Following is a statement attributable to Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, about the use of body-worn cameras and the law enforcement directive:
“The Attorney General directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey.
“While it contains some important safeguards, it fails to address those very concerns that have triggered the public’s desire for body cameras in the first place. The public will not have a right to access the kind of footage—whether it's the chokehold used on Eric Garner or the arrest of Sandra Bland—that has sparked a conversation on police abuses.
“The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.
“We have real concerns about several specific, key points:
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The incidents involving New Jersey police and concertgoers outside of the Summer Jam concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford last night raise serious questions about police practices. We are aware of reports of individuals throwing bottles at responding officers, but any time law enforcement deploy tear gas, sound cannons, armored personnel carriers and riot gear in a civilian context, civil liberties are put at risk and a closer look is required.
“The Attorney General’s office should appoint an independent investigator to determine and publicly report on what led to last night’s events, whether the event was properly managed and policed, how many injuries and arrests took place, and whether the tactics and force deployed by state troopers and potentially other law enforcement personnel were appropriate. The State Police should also release its Standard Operating Procedures for its deployment of the tactics and tools it used with concertgoers last night.
“The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor information about last night’s incident as it becomes available.”
NEWARK — On his visit to Camden today, President Obama will hear in more detail about the successes of the recently formed Camden County Police Department, which has been lauded in many corners for its advances in community policing and a reduction in the impoverished city’s violent crime rate since it took over the city police department two years ago.
Chief Scott Thomson has been a national leader in promoting community policing, testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year. “Community policing cannot be a program, unit, strategy or tactic. It must be the core principle which lies at the foundation of a police department's culture,” he said. “Community policing is not an option, it's an affirmative obligation."
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey agrees with Thomson about the importance of community policing. At the same time, the ACLU-NJ is concerned about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in Camden since the new force took over. An emphasis on making arrests and issuing tickets for activities like riding a bicycle without a bell, disorderly conduct, or failing to adequately maintain lights or reflectors on a vehicle are counter to the practice of community policing. The ACLU-NJ is also concerned about some of the data related to investigations of excessive force complaints by Camden residents.
“We value Chief Thomson’s public commitment to community policing and his prioritizing of community engagement, but we are concerned that the numbers in Camden have begun to tell a different story,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses, combined with what appears to be the absence of adequate accountability for excessive force complaints, raise serious concerns. The reality is that more people are being arrested for petty offenses, which is overwhelming the courts and has the potential to create a climate of fear, rather than respect, in the community."
Community policing is premised on building relationships and trust between police officers and the communities they serve. Focusing police resources on criminalizing minor misbehavior can lead to greater mistrust and a feeling of harassment by the police. Arrests and summonses for low-level offenses can have a spiraling effect that could lead to people losing their jobs, public benefits or immigration status. These sanctions can also result in hundreds of dollars in fines and a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job in the future.
“Aggressively enforcing low-level offenses will only serve to escalate tensions and make communities less safe,” said Ofer. “In a city plagued by poverty and disenfranchisement, funneling more people into our bloated criminal justice system harms families and communities and blunts the kind of community development that the people of Camden deserve.”
Ofer commended the new Camden County police force for emphasizing greater engagement with community members, patrolling the streets on foot rather than in cars, and in general building enhanced relationships. An example of the improved practices includes a reduction in police response times to an average of 4.4 minutes from a horrendous 60 minutes in the past.
But, Ofer added, “Before we hold Camden up as a model of community policing, we must address the troubling indicators that point to Camden’s use of practices that appear to take a page from a broken windows approach to policing. We know from cities across the country that broken windows policing often leads to distrust and alienation between communities and the police.”
The arrest and summons data, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, for the first full year of the Camden County Police Department include the following examples, which compare the periods of July 2012 through June 2013 and July 2013 through June 2014 (the county force took over in May 2013):
The marked increase in enforcement for low-level offenses has ballooned the Camden Municipal Court caseload by 29 percent. Unlike the Superior Court, which handles serious indictable offenses (felonies), the municipal court handles low-level arrests and summonses.
Nearly 125,000 cases were filed between July 2013 and June 2014 in Camden Municipal Court, up from 97,000 the previous year. In other words, even if every single Camden resident — adult and child — were hauled into Municipal Court, there would still be an additional 50,000 cases approximately. The volume has prompted the city to add a fourth judge, two public defenders, and a prosecutor. The court’s administrative staff has nearly doubled.
Adding tens of thousands of additional cases before the Camden Municipal Court will not make the City of Camden safer. For many years Camden has suffered from poverty and joblessness, and the city cannot arrest its way out of this problem. Funneling more people into the criminal justice system does more harm than good, as does imposing municipal court fines and fees on communities that can least afford them.
The data also show 65 excessive force complaints filed against Camden police officers in 2014, an escalation from the number in previous years and the most complaints against any department in the state of New Jersey during the same period. The number of complaints exceeded the combined totals reported by the departments in Newark and Jersey City, the two biggest cities in the state with hundreds more officers.
In addition, according to reporting by The Philadelphia Inquirer, not one of the 65 excessive force complaints filed in 2014 has been sustained. The report suggests that the department has finished investigating 44 of the 65 complaints and dismissed all of them. The remaining 21 are pending. If true, such numbers raise serious concerns about systems designed to ensure accountability.
Thomson testified before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which made several recommendations for police departments, and Thomson is already in the process of implementing several of the recommendations. We encourage the Camden County Police Department to adopt, at the very least, these recommendations from the President’s Task Force: