Growing Up White in Wyckoff, the NJ Town Whose Police Chief Encouraged Racial Profiling in Email

April 13, 2016
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By Andrea Long, ACLU-NJ Donor Relations Manager

Andrea Long

I was fortunate to have grown up in Wyckoff, New Jersey. When I was one, my parents purchased a home with an apple tree and a pool. My mother would take me to a local farm to ride my favorite pony, Peanut. I still remember how exciting it was when a new playground was built next to the library. As soon as I learned to ride a two-wheeler, I’d ride my bike all over our little cul-de-sac. Wyckoff had everything a child could want, except maybe a movie theater. It’s a beautiful town with friendly people and excellent schools. I always felt safe, and I knew I belonged.

When I was growing up, Wyckoff was even more overwhelmingly white than it is today. And, as such, race rarely came up, at least not for me. It never occurred to me that our police department’s leadership might embrace racial profiling, as a leaked email (PDF) the ACLU-NJ released in March from then-Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox suggested. “Profiling, racial or otherwise, has its place in law enforcement,” the email said. I never had to think about it. And for that, I know I’m lucky.

As far as I knew, we didn’t have problems with racism in Wyckoff. I never saw any race-related conflict. Although when your town is .56 percent Black, the level of racial diversity made it difficult for most people to witness very much interracial interaction on a day-to-day basis, much less conflict. My schools were overwhelmingly White, but I still had friends across the racial spectrum. Some students who were immigrants stuck together because their English wasn’t fluent yet, but otherwise our student body wasn’t segregated.

The members of the police department were always friendly and approachable. I knew officers from the D.A.R.E. program, but also because we had to call for an ambulance a couple of times

Andrea Long and Peanut the pony Andrea Long and Peanut the pony

for my grandmother. For the most part, the police force never felt like a significant presence.

In the late 90s, our home was burglarized. Living near the highway through town, we were told that out-of-towners were likely to blame. The Wyckoff Police made me feel safe at home afterward. They were on our side.

I know now that my experience was different because I’m White. I also know Wyckoff shaped who I am. Had we been one of the few Black families, I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like. I’m sure Black Wyckoff residents moved there for excellent schools, low crime, lots of trees, and (seemingly?) friendly neighbors. But it was foolish of me to think that Wyckoff was a racism-free space. The police always treated me and my mother well, but I have to question how we would have been treated if we were Black.

Some Wyckoff and Bergen County residents are defending the racial profiling advocated by the Wyckoff police chief, who stepped down indefinitely after the allegations — allegations that prompted an investigation by the state Attorney General. I am astonished that people in my childhood community in 2016 do not understand the harm of racial profiling. It’s unconstitutional. It has no place in Wyckoff, or anywhere. The police need to protect all of us – not just the ones who look like me.

Even though some residents have defended the police chief, I am confident that many more understand the need to tackle racist police practices at every opportunity. We need to make Wyckoff the place that we want it to be. We must confront our issues, not continue to pretend like they do not exist. Wyckoff can do better, and I believe that we will.

ACLU-NJ Calls for Greater Police Data Collection, Transparency, Following Seton Hall Report

April 11, 2016
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ACLU-NJ Calls on AG to Investigate Bloomfield and Require Data Collection, Transparency for All NJ Departments

NEWARK - Following a new report from Seton Hall that reveals racial disparities in policing, the ACLU-NJ repeated a call on the New Jersey Attorney General to institute statewide standards for police departments, especially with regard to data collection on police activity. The Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Policy & Research’s report, called “Racial Profiling Report: Bloomfield Police and Bloomfield Municipal Court,” showed that Blacks and Latinos received tickets at much higher rates than they represent in both Bloomfield or New Jersey as a whole.

The Seton Hall report’s findings are consistent with those of an ACLU-NJ report issued in January documenting racial disparities in enforcement of low-level offenses in four New Jersey cities — Elizabeth, Jersey City, Millville and New Brunswick.

“The findings of the Seton Hall Center for Policy & Research’s report are deeply troubling,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “Their thorough analysis indicates the existence of extreme racial disparities in the policing and ticketing of Blacks and Latinos by the Bloomfield Police Department.”

The Seton Hall analysis found, among other disturbing revelations, that while Bloomfield’s population is 60 percent White, Blacks and Latinos make up 78 percent of court appearances in Bloomfield Municipal Court. Nearly 84 percent of tickets issued in Bloomfield are issued in the geographic lower third of Bloomfield, which borders Newark and East Orange — communities predominantly made up of people of color. This analysis indicates that Blacks and Latinos are being dramatically over-policed in Bloomfield, and they are paying a price for it: Blacks and Latinos paid more than $1 million to the Bloomfield Municipal Court between September 2014 and August 2015.

“Unfortunately, once again evidence has emerged confirming that Blacks and Latinos in New Jersey municipalities disproportionately bear the brunt of the enforcement of low-level offenses,” said Rosmarin. “How many more advocacy reports, law school studies, media exposes, or instances of community outcry will it take before New Jersey policymakers take this problem seriously and take steps to root out racial profiling in New Jersey police departments? We have no doubt similar findings could emerge in countless other municipalities throughout the state.”

In light of the Seton Hall findings about Bloomfield, the New Jersey Attorney General should immediately:

  • Investigate the Bloomfield Police Department’s policing policies and practices for racial bias and disparate impact and take remedial steps to eliminate such bias and disparities, including anti-bias training among other measures.
  • Investigate Bloomfield Municipal Court practices in light of the recent “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the U.S. Department of Justice warning of unconstitutional practices relating to the collection of fines and fees in local courts. Indeed, as the letter indicates, if the Bloomfield Municipal Court receives federal funds, it could be running afoul of federal civil rights laws if its actions create “disparate harm on the basis of race or national origin.”
  • Require the Bloomfield Police Department — and all New Jersey police departments — to collect, aggregate and publicly release data, including racial demographic data, regarding its enforcement activity, including stops, frisks, searches, summonses, arrests, and use-of-force incidents.
  • Build more transparency in New Jersey’s municipal courts by ensuring greater data collection on the issuance and collection of fines and fees and by securing public access to those data.

“The people of Bloomfield, and of Newark, East Orange, and other communities across the state, deserve their interactions with the police to be fair, transparent, accountable, and bias-free,” Rosmarin said.

Read the Seton Hall Center for Policy & Research report on racial profiling, as well as the ACLU-NJ’s low-level offenses report.

Consent Decree Forges Path Ahead to Newark Police Accountability

March 30, 2016
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Federal monitor installed to oversee Newark police; ACLU-NJ will continue push for long-lasting reforms

NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey welcomed the consent decree signed March 30 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the City of Newark as a historic step in reforming the city’s long-troubled police department.

Following a U.S. DOJ investigation of the Newark Police Department (NPD) that found widespread civil rights abuses and that came after a 2010 ACLU-NJ petition calling for such an investigation, the agreement to reform the state’s largest municipal police force includes an independent monitor to oversee implementation of the reforms as well as benchmarks to ensure the Newark Police Department’s compliance with the agreement. Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey has been appointed to the monitor position.

“For 50 years the people of Newark have called for federal oversight of Newark policing, and today’s announcement marks a historic moment in that long struggle for a fair, just and accountable police force,” said Udi Ofer, ACLU-NJ Executive Director. “But now the hard work begins of transforming a police department that has long engaged in widespread constitutional violations. The Justice Department will be in Newark for only a few years. Now Newark must implement reforms that will outlast any one federal monitor. The consent decree entered into today is a crucial next step toward building a police force that upholds civil rights and is accountable to the people of Newark.”

Together with Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Paul Fishman entered into an agreement in federal district court to overhaul the way Newark’s police do business. These measures will be court-enforced and independently monitored. Some of the remedial measures include:

  • New policies and trainings to end unconstitutional and discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, arrests of Newarkers for exercising First Amendment-protected rights, and theft by Newark police officers
  • Requirements for in-car and body-worn cameras
  • Community oversight of the NPD, part of which is already set to take place through a city ordinance passed March 16 establishing one of the nation’s strongest police civilian review boards
  • A discipline matrix standardizing process and penalties for police misconduct
  • Strengthened Internal Affairs procedures, including audit requirements
  • 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

In July 2014, following a 2010 ACLU-NJ petition documenting 418 allegations of police abuse, the Department of Justice released a report finding widespread civil rights and civil liberties violations in Newark policing, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, quotas, theft by officers, and a failed internal affairs system.

The consent decree outlines requirements for the Newark Police Department in carrying out reforms. Specifically, the consent decree requires the NPD to develop strong policies and conduct regular trainings designed to protect Newarkers from unconstitutional stops, frisks, and arrests. These requirements, along with protections against racially biased-policing and strong bans on unlawful use of force such as chokeholds, are among the highlights of the agreement.

The ACLU-NJ expresses concern regarding some gaps in the consent decree, particularly around creating a more transparent, and thus accountable, police department. For example:

  • While the agreement demands that all “studies, analyses, and assessments” required by the agreement will be made publicly available, it does not require the raw, underlying data be available, with adequate privacy protections, for independent analysis and assessment.
  • The section addressing body-worn cameras generally requires officers to give notice to civilians that they are being recorded to protect their privacy rights. But, troublingly, it fails to guarantee public access to those records, when permitted by law, and allows officers to review recordings in which they are featured without specifying when that review would occur, which can jeopardize the integrity of an investigation.
  • The agreement includes positive provisions to prevent a chilling effect on recording police officers, but it also allows officers to seize recording devices without a clear articulation of risk that the owner of the device would otherwise delete the footage.
  • Finally, while the limitations on illegal searches are generally strong, the consent decree appears to authorize pretextual vehicle stops with a supervisor’s approval.

The ACLU-NJ calls on the new monitor, Peter Harvey, to take a robust view of his monitorship to fill the gaps within the consent decree.

Since the release of the Justice Department report, the ACLU-NJ and our community partners in Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP) have pushed for greater accountability in the police department. On March 16 Newark responded through the creation of a Civilian Complaint Review Board that empowers an 11-member panel, a majority of whom will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, to review complaints against the city’s police department. The civilian review board will have subpoena authority, the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing, the power to audit police policies and practices, and mechanisms to institute robust transparency in the police department.

“What we’ve been looking for in a monitor is, above all, someone in sync with the Newark community who makes the civil rights of its residents a priority of the department,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, ACLU-NJ Organizer. “We’re hoping that the new monitor, Peter Harvey, makes the community’s concerns his own by ensuring community participation and input in every step of the monitoring process.”

About a month after the DOJ issued its findings, the ACLU-NJ and community allies sent recommendations to Newark and DOJ regarding the substance of the consent decree, including requirements for strong community oversight and monitoring; a diverse, unbiased police force that reflects the communities it serves; a focus on community policing versus aggressive stops; early warning systems; transparency; and training.

“The ACLU of New Jersey has fought for decades for police accountability in Newark and we have no plans to let up now,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “We will continue to work with the people of Newark to make sure federal oversight results in a fair and accountable department. This is a victory for the decades of Newark community advocates and activists who have been tireless in their calls for justice. Justice was delayed but it has not been denied.”

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Email Suggests Wyckoff Police Chief Ordered Racial Profiling

March 22, 2016
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ACLU-NJ asks AG to investigate authenticity of email; calls for chief's firing and examination of Wyckoff police practices if email is authentic

After receiving a copy of an email (PDF) from an anonymous source, the ACLU of New Jersey has called on the Attorney General to investigate whether Wyckoff Police Department Chief Benjamin Fox advised his officers to engage in racial profiling. “Profiling, racial or otherwise, has it’s (sic) place in law enforcement … Don’t ask police to ignore what we know. Black gang members from Teaneck commit burglaries in Wyckoff. That’s why we check out suspicious black people in white neighborhoods,” the email, apparently sent to the town’s entire police department, said.

“When you look at everything we know about the kind of policing that fosters trust between officers and communities, this email shows Wyckoff heading in the opposite direction,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom of the leaked email. “Encouraging police officers to act with racial bias is unacceptable. Sowing mistrust at this level damages civil rights, and it threatens public safety by diminishing the faith people have in the police. If Chief Fox sent the email, community members — and the police department — will need real accountability to heal from this fractured and divisive approach to policing.”

The email addressed from Chief Fox was written in 2014 but anonymously shared with the ACLU-NJ the week of March 14. The email encourages officers to violate both state and federal civil rights laws that ban racial profiling, as well as an official statewide policy established through Attorney General directive that prohibits racially influenced policing. The ACLU-NJ asked New Jersey Acting Attorney General Robert Lougy to investigate (PDF) the email and, after determining the message’s authenticity, to fire Fox, retrain officers, and conduct audits for both racially biased policing and use of force.

The ACLU-NJ also filed an Open Public Records Act request (PDF) with the Wyckoff Police Department to understand whether the organizational culture as demonstrated in the email has affected police practices there. The request sought arrest data, use of force reports, stop-and-frisk numbers, training materials, and email correspondence containing “profiling,” among other records. The ACLU-NJ repeated a call it has made previously, most recently in a deep-dive report on enforcement of low-level offenses, for the Office of the Attorney General to mandate policing data collection and its public release, in Wyckoff specifically and in all New Jersey police departments.

“Racial profiling has no place in New Jersey, and if Chief Fox sent the email in question, then he must be held accountable,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “But removing one chief will not ensure accountability over police departments. This is a wake-up call for New Jersey to implement stronger oversight and transparency in policing practices across the state. That’s why the Attorney General must mandate that all police departments in New Jersey report to the public basic policing data — whether on stop-and-frisk or arrests and summonses — to determine whether racial bias exists in policing on our streets and on our roads.”

The ACLU-NJ has sent a letter (PDF) as well to Wyckoff Mayor Kevin Rooney, the Wyckoff Township Committee, Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, and fellow advocates for police accountability, including the Bergen County NAACP, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

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Newark Makes History with Council’s Passage of Permanent Police Oversight Board

March 16, 2016
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Civil rights, community organizations hail the creation of a strong and permanent vehicle for police accountability, see the beginning of a new day in Newark

NEWARK - Surrounded by community members who took up the mantle of a 50-year fight for civilian-led police accountability, the Newark Municipal Council tonight voted unanimously to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board. Newark’s board is poised to become one of the strongest police oversight boards in the country. Currently, New Jersey has no CCRBs in operation.

“Throughout my decades in Newark, whether as a police officer, an academic or a community activist, I have never seen so much potential for real, lasting reform,” said John Smith, a former Newark police officer, and current professor at Essex County College and member of the NAACP of New Jersey. “And now, that potential is closer than ever to being realized. This oversight board, by permanently putting power into the hands of independent, knowledgeable, concerned community members, could usher along the departmental rebirth residents have sought for more than 50 years.”

The Council voted unanimously to pass a robust ordinance that will empower an 11-member panel to review complaints against the city’s police department. A sizeable majority of the board will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations. The new law gives the panel subpoena power, the power to audit police policies and practices, mechanisms to enhance transparency in the police department, and the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.

“I don’t want my children to have to go through what I did coming up, knowing that if I wanted to visit my friends or family members, there was a good chance I would be stopped by the police for no good reason,” said Laquan Thomas, a community advocate and staff member at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “Now that we’ll have a permanent CCRB in Newark, my children have a better chance of getting an important layer of protection for their rights that I didn’t have. I don’t know when the abuse in our community is going to stop, but I do know that now, with a civilian oversight board passed into law, we’re closer to that point.”

On April 30, 2015, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board in Newark. The ordinance passed by the Municipal Council would strengthen and codify the Mayor’s order into permanent law and ensure that the civilian review board outlasts any one mayoral administration. Mayor Baraka and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose voiced their support for the CCRB ordinance in statements before the Council’s first reading of the legislation on March 2.

“For 50 years the people of Newark have called for the creation of a civilian review board, and today Newark finally responded by creating one of the nation’s strongest police review boards,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “With passage of this law, the people of Newark will now have a powerful, permanent check on police abuses, one that can stand as a national model for strong and independent civilian oversight of police. At a time when communities across the nation struggle with the daily injustices of police misconduct, Newark has taken a historic step to create police accountability.”

As outlined in the ordinance and executive order, the civilian complaint review board will be invested with much-needed independent authority, including the power to:

 

  • Investigate complaints of police misconduct. The board will be empowered with subpoena authority to investigate civilian complaints about Newark Police officers’ improper use force; unlawful searches, stops, and arrests; and even discourteous treatment, such as cursing or slurs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other protected categories.
  • Ensure that disciplinary decisions stick. Only a “clear error” in the board’s investigation will allow the Public Safety Director to reject a finding of fact from the board. The Public Safety Director will then use a pre-negotiated discipline matrix to dole out appropriate punishments.
  • Audit the department’s policies and practices, including investigations of patterns that reveal racial disparities in enforcement of laws, or any other issue of public safety or police-community relations.
  • Build transparency into the Newark Police Department. The board will be empowered to provide the public with information about complaints it receives, police stops, uses of force, arrests, stop-and-frisk activity, and money paid by the city in settlements or judgments from claims filed against the department. Its meetings would be public.

 

“The regularity by which we bear witness to the tragic deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of law enforcement reminds the whole country that we have failed to hold police officers accountable when they violate the public trust,” said Milly Silva, Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East. “Newark is poised to lead the nation forward in demonstrating that communities play a critical role in holding police accountable, and that, indeed, Black lives matter.”

The members of the panel will be chosen by a diverse group of stakeholders. As laid out in the ordinance, the city’s inspector general and three designees appointed by Municipal Council members will serve on the board, as well as seven board members nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, Ironbound Community Corporation, La Casa de Don Pedro, NAACP New Jersey, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, People’s Organization for Progress, and a representative from the clergy. Five out of the seven community-based organizations listed in the executive order are steering committee members or endorsing members of N-CAP.

“For decades we have needed a permanent, independent review board that could make discipline stick, and today’s yes vote is the culmination of 50 years of tireless efforts to give that power to the people,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We will work just as tirelessly to ensure that this civilian review board is as strong, independent, and capable of holding police officers to the highest standards of professionalism in practice as it is on paper.”

This vote comes as the city and the United States Department of Justice move closer to the appointment of a federal monitor to implement a pending consent decree to oversee reforms of the Newark Police. A three-year Department of Justice investigation, which followed an ACLU-NJ petition calling for such an investigation, confirmed widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the Newark Police, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, theft by officers, and a dysfunctional internal affairs structure. The report, released on July 22, 2014, found that approximately 75 percent of stops in Newark lacked a constitutional basis.

“The Council’s approval of a CCRB will serve as a key part of building trust between the community and law enforcement,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “For any oversight of the police department to be truly effective, it must be permanent and outlast any one mayor or federal monitor. We hope that through civil rights victories like this one, our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity as we have.”

On March 2, before the first reading of the ordinance, N-CAP delivered a letter to members of the Council encouraging support for the CCRB ordinance signed by 26 local, state, and national civil rights and police accountability organizations, including Black Lives Matter NJ, Campaign Zero, La Casa de Don Pedro, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, and the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. Additionally, the CCRB has the support of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“Our collective call for the Newark Municipal Council to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board reflects our belief that there has to be a much-needed paradigm shift in order to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” said Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “That paradigm shift begins now. Law enforcement accountability is an essential aspect of our broader vision of building and empowering healthy urban communities.”

N-CAP, launched in September 2014, comprises steering committee members 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, ACLU-NJ, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP-New Jersey State Conference, NAACP-New Jersey Newark Chapter, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the People’s Organization for Progress, as well as organizational members American Friends Service Committee, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and Newark LGBTQ Community Center.

“No matter what else may happen in the future, with this vote the Newark Municipal Council has ensured that civilian oversight of police has a central, permanent role in our city,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, N-CAP organizer. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability, and this ordinance gives the people of Newark the authority to truly discipline police officers who abuse their position. With the establishment of this CCRB, the days of letting police officers police themselves will start to approach an end.”

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Newark Council to Vote on Historic Ordinance Creating Civilian Oversight of Police

March 15, 2016
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Civil rights, community organizations and Newarkers to make final push for ordinance to hold police accountable to the public

NEWARK – Community members and civil rights activists will converge on the steps of Newark City Hall at 6 p.m. and in chambers on March 16 for the Municipal Council’s 6:30 p.m. historic final hearing and vote on an ordinance creating a civilian complaint review board to hold police accountable.

Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), a diverse coalition of advocates for police reform, has pushed for a strong, independent civilian board to review police misconduct complaints, carrying on a cause that has been 50 years in the making. Newark’s board would be one of the strongest in the country and the first in New Jersey.

WHAT:        Hearing and final Newark Municipal Council vote on an ordinance to create a strong, independent civilian complaint review board to hold the Newark Police accountable
WHEN:   Wednesday, March 16; advocates gather at 6 p.m., hearing begins at 6:30
WHERE:   City Hall Municipal Council Chamber
920 Broad Street
Newark
WHO:   • Members of the Newark Municipal Council
• Newark Communities for Accountable Policing
• Newark community members testifying about the need for police oversight

N-CAP and the members of its steering committee — 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, ACLU-NJ, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP-New Jersey State Conference, NAACP Newark Branch, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and People’s Organization for Progress — have called on the Newark Municipal Council to create a permanent police review board that has subpoena power, disciplinary authority and a lasting presence beyond any one mayoral administration.

New Stun Gun Policy Takes NJ in the Wrong Direction

March 3, 2016
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The state Office of the Attorney General today released a policy directive (PDF) on the use by local, county and state law enforcement of “conducted energy devices,” also known as stun guns, or by the brand name Taser.

The following statement about the directive is attributable to Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ’s Public Policy Director:

The following statement is from Ari Rosmarin, public policy director at the ACLU of New Jersey.

Ari Rosmarin

The Attorney General’s new policy on stun guns (PDF) takes New Jersey in the wrong direction. The policy greatly expands the authority of police officers to use stun guns against civilians. Evidence shows that while stun guns might be considered “less lethal” than firearms, they still can and do kill people. Nor has the use of stun guns led to a decrease in the number of people shot by police.

Further, while we are glad the policy recognizes the need to train stun-gun equipped officers in de-escalation tactics, such training should be mandatory for all officers.

Until today, the state’s policy, which was established after careful study five years ago by the Christie administration, permitted an officer to fire a stun gun only in an effort to prevent death or serious bodily harm. The new policy expands the authorization for the use of stun guns well beyond those limits. For example, the expansion allows for use of a stun gun in resisting arrest scenarios where a person has used no physical force against the officer.

We have little doubt this change will lead to increased – and deadly – use of stun guns.

The ACLU and Electronic Village have documented at least 547 stun gun related deaths from 2001 to 2014. In fact, The Arizona Republic analyzed 377 cases where the Phoenix Police Department used a stun gun and found that in 90 percent of them, the person posed no imminent threat to officers with weapons.

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Groups Call on Newark Council to Create Permanent Police Oversight

March 2, 2016
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Civil rights, community organizations urge council to give Newarkers a permanent vehicle for holding police accountable at historic hearing on civilian review board ordinance

NEWARK – Surrounded by supporters and community members, Newark’s leading advocates for police accountability today called on the Newark Municipal Council to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board (CCRB) to hold Newark police officers accountable for wrongdoing. The council held its first hearing today for an ordinance to create one of the strongest police review boards in the country. A final vote on the ordinance is expected March 16.

“Throughout all my years in Newark, whether as a police officer, an academic or a community activist, I have never seen so much potential for real, lasting reform,” said John Smith, a former Newark police officer, and current professor at Essex County College and member of the NAACP of New Jersey. “This proposal for a CCRB before the council, by permanently putting power into the hands of independent, knowledgeable, concerned community members, could usher along the departmental rebirth residents have sought for more than 50 years.”

On April 30, 2015, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board in Newark. Newark communities praised Mayor Baraka’s order, and the ordinance being considered today by the Municipal Council would codify that order into permanent law and ensure that the civilian review board outlasts any one mayoral administration. Mayor Baraka and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose voiced their support for the CCRB ordinance in statements before the council hearing.

“I don’t want my sons to have to go through what I did coming up, knowing that if I wanted to visit my friends or family members, there was a good chance I would be stopped by the police for no good reason,” said Laquan Thomas, a community advocate and staff member at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “With a permanent CCRB in Newark, my children would get an important layer of protection for their rights that I didn’t have. I don’t know when the abuse in our community is going to stop, but I do know that if the council passes a CCRB, we’ll get a lot closer.”

The review board, as proposed in the bill and laid out in the mayor’s executive order, empowers an 11-member panel, a majority of which will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, to review complaints against the city’s police department, and provides the panel with subpoena power, the power to audit police policies and practices, mechanisms to enhance transparency in the police department, and the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.

“As communities across the United States struggle with the daily injustices of police misconduct, Newark’s civilian review board can be a national model for creating strong and independent civilian oversight of the police,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Newark communities have been calling for the creation of a civilian review board since the 1960s. Today’s hearing is an important step in a decades-long struggle for accountability and justice. With the passage of this ordinance, we are that much closer to a permanent check on police abuses.”

As outlined in the ordinance and executive order, the civilian complaint review board will be invested with much-needed authority, including the power to:

  • Investigate complaints of police misconduct. The board will be empowered, with subpoena authority, to investigate civilian complaints about NPD officers’ improper use force; unlawful searches, stops, and arrests; and even discourteous treatment, such as cursing or slurs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other protected categories.
  • Ensure that disciplinary decisions stick. Only a “clear error” in the board’s investigation will allow the Public Safety Director to reject a finding of fact from the board. The Public Safety Director will then use a pre-negotiated discipline matrix to dole out appropriate punishments.
  • Audit the department’s policies and practices, including investigations of patterns that reveal racial disparities in enforcement of laws, or any other issue of public safety or police-community relations
  • Build transparency into the Newark Police Department. The board will be empowered to provide the public with information about complaints it receives, police stops, uses of force, arrests, stop-and-frisk activity, and money paid by the City in settlements or judgements from claims filed against the department. Its meetings would be public.

“The regularity by which we bear witness to the tragic deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of law enforcement reminds the whole country that we have failed to hold police officers accountable when they violate the public trust,” said Milly Silva, Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East. “Newark can and must lead the nation forward in demonstrating that communities can play a critical role in holding police accountable, and that, indeed, black lives matter.”

The members of the panel would be chosen by a diverse group of stakeholders. As laid out in the ordinance, the city’s Inspector General and three designees appointed by city council members will serve on the board, as well as seven board members nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, La Casa de Don Pedro, People’s Organization for Progress, and a representative from the clergy. Five out of the seven community-based organizations listed in the executive order are steering committee members or endorsing members of N-CAP.

“We need a permanent, independent review board with the power to make discipline stick,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that this civilian review board is strong, independent, and capable of holding police officers to the highest standards of professionalism.”

The hearing comes as the city and the United States Department of Justice move closer to the appointment of a federal monitor to implement a pending consent decree to oversee reforms of the NPD. A three-year Department of Justice investigation, which followed an ACLU-NJ petition calling for such an investigation, confirmed widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the NPD, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, theft by officers, and a dysfunctional internal affairs structure. The report found that approximately 75 percent of stops in Newark lacked a constitutional basis.

“The council’s approval of a CCRB is a key part of building trust between the community and law enforcement,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “We must build effective oversight of the police department that becomes permanent in Newark and will outlast any one Mayor or federal monitor. We push forward so that our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity as we have.”

N-CAP will be educating and mobilizing the public to take action in support of the CCRB leading up to the expected March 16 vote.

“Our collective call today for the Newark Municipal Council to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board reflects our belief that there has to be a much-needed paradigm shift in order to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” said Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Law enforcement accountability is an essential aspect of our broader vision of building and empowering healthy urban communities.”

Prior to the hearing, N-CAP delivered a letter (PDF) to members of the Council encouraging support for the CCRB ordinance signed by 27 local, state, and national civil rights and police accountability organizations, including Black Lives Matter NJ, Campaign Zero, La Casa de Don Pedro, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, and the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.

“The Newark Municipal Council must act on its duty to ensure that civilian oversight of police has a central, permanent role in our city, and this hearing is an important start,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, N-CAP organizer. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability. The CCRB must be empowered to make sure that officers are disciplined when they abuse Newarkers’ rights. Due to the void of trust in the police, communities need an independent body that is not beholden to the old, failed ways of doing business. With the establishment of this CCRB, the days of letting police officers police themselves will start to approach an end.”

N-CAP, launched in September 2014, comprises steering committee members 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, ACLU-NJ, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP-New Jersey State Conference, NAACP-New Jersey Newark Chapter, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the People’s Organization for Progress, as well as organizational members American Friends Service Committee, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and Newark LGBTQ Community Center.

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Free Speech Victory for Man Who Flipped Off Cop in Unmarked Car

February 16, 2016
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NEWARK – Prosecutors dismissed charges against a Bergen County man who was cited for disorderly conduct after showing his middle finger to an aggressive driver who turned out to be a police officer in an unmarked car. In a vindication of free speech rights, the New Milford municipal prosecutor dismissed the charges against William Martin, who was represented by the ACLU of New Jersey.

“When I received a summons, I felt that my free speech rights were under attack for nothing more than expressing my frustration with someone whose driving had put people at risk,” Martin said. “I’m relieved to know that the town of New Milford recognized it wasn’t worth prosecuting me for expressing my frustration.”

Martin received a disorderly conduct summons in New Milford, Bergen County, after flipping the bird to an officer in an unmarked car. On the narrative portion of the ticket (PDF) the officer wrote, “Behaved or exhibited disorderly conduct, specifically by extending his left arm out the driver’s side window and raise his left middle finger [at the officer].” Legal precedent has firmly established that a raised middle finger, even one directed toward a police officer, is an act of speech protected under the First Amendment.

“Enforcing manners rather than public safety is a poor use of police resources,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, who represented Martin. “Our client expressed his frustration using a peaceful, silent gesture that is protected by the First Amendment. In this case, an officer chose to initiate and escalate an encounter instead of just ignoring it. It might be rude to flip off a police officer, but it isn’t a crime.”

In the incident leading up to the summons, Martin was followed closely by an unmarked passenger car while on an errand. The driver began to tailgate Martin’s vehicle, and Martin became concerned. Martin tapped his brakes lightly as a signal for the driver to stop following so closely. As Martin slowed to make a turn into the bank, the driver behind him stopped just inches from Martin’s bumper.

Shaken by the situation, Martin lowered his window and stuck out his middle finger. The driver followed him into the parking lot, activated the unmarked police car’s grill lights, and blocked Martin’s car.

Martin was prosecuted under a municipal disorderly conduct ordinance that is so broad as to be virtually unenforceable. The ordinance, which puts a blanket prohibition on any behavior deemed a disturbance, is much more punitive than state law, which requires that the action be an intentional, materially harmful disturbance.

“This experience really made me question what I thought I knew about my rights,” Martin added. “It was extremely upsetting for the police to punish me for an understandable response to an aggressive driver. I felt powerless. Now that the prosecutor has dismissed the charges, I feel like I’ve been vindicated.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania won a case in 2009, Hackbart v. Pittsburgh, that affirmed the constitutional rights of a man in circumstances nearly identical to Martin. Hackbart was attempting to parallel park when a driver blocked the space he was backing into. When Hackbart gave him the finger, the officer in the unmarked car cited him based on an anti-obscenity law. U.S. District Court Judge David Cercone ruled that the police violated his rights by citing him with disorderly conduct for showing the officer his middle finger.

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ACLU-NJ Defends West New York Man Arrested After Filming Police

December 22, 2015
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The ACLU of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the West New York Police Department on behalf of a man who was arrested in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after filming police officers arresting two teenagers.

The ACLU-NJ is challenging Cesar Sanchez’s arrest on charges of obstructing the administration of law based on Sanchez’s filming of the police and his refusal to provide identification. The First Amendment allows people to film the police unobtrusively. The municipal prosecutor in West New York has already dropped the charges against Sanchez, having determined that no probable cause existed to justify the arrest.

“It’s a strange experience to expect to spend an evening at home after work and instead wind up in jail, all for doing something that the Constitution protects,” said Sanchez. “I’m filing this lawsuit so no one else in West New York has their freedom taken away for exercising their First Amendment right to film the police to begin with.”

When Sanchez, a West New York resident, saw police forcefully arresting two teenagers on his way home from work in July, he pointed his cellphone camera and hit record. The officers unlawfully ordered him to put away his phone. He initially demurred but complied when one of the officers approached him. However, when the police asked for identification, he opted to exercise his legal right to refuse. The police then arrested him, in retaliation for filming the scene lawfully and for declining to show his identification despite the police’s lack of justification to request it.

The lawsuit explains that West New York has a duty to create affirmative policies allowing filming of police and to properly train its officers that filming the police in public is a legal, constitutionally protected activity. Sanchez has asked in his filing for the town to take steps to proactively establish protections for people peacefully filming officers in public. Currently, West New York has no policies on its books affirming the right of people to film police.

“Cellphone cameras have become a common tool for holding police accountable, but unfortunately, the knowledge that it’s perfectly legal to film officers in public hasn’t spread as rapidly,” said ACLU-NJ attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Sanchez. “Officers already know that cellphone cameras have become the new normal, and now they need to accept that people have the right to use their devices to film police.”

Earlier this year, the ACLU of New Jersey released Mobile Justice, a smartphone application available on Apple and Android devices that allows users to record police interactions and send them to the ACLU to monitor for possible rights violations. The app also informs users of their rights when interacting with police.

“We the people may know our rights, but the police must uphold those rights for democracy to work,” said Livengood. “West New York needs to adopt a policy that promises the public that the police will respect our freedoms, even the ones – or especially the ones – that they would prefer we not exercise.”

In 2012, the ACLU-NJ won a successful settlement on behalf of Khaliah Fitchette, a Newark teenager who was held in a police car and arrested after filming police officers while she was riding a city bus.

The complaint is captioned Sanchez v. Town of West New York. Mobile Justice is available for free on Android and Apple iOS platforms.

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