February 12, 2013

AG’s office takes significant steps to improve practices in response to report

February 12, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

NEWARK – The average citizen filing an internal affairs complaint against a local police officer over the phone in New Jersey will most likely encounter hostility, misinformation or other obstacles from local law enforcement employees, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).

The report, "The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs," (1MB PDF) summarizes the responses that 497 departments in New Jersey provided to ACLU-NJ volunteers who called inquiring about how to file a complaint. The study revealed that more than three-quarters of police departments were unable to provide answers or provided wrong answers regarding the basic rules surrounding access to internal affairs.

"When citizens are given wrong information or are dissuaded from filing internal affairs complaints with a police department, it gives them no faith that the same department will conduct thorough and fair investigations into allegations of officer misconduct," said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom, the primary author of the report. "And it is hard for citizens to have faith in police departments that cannot police themselves."

In response to receiving an early draft of this report, the state Attorney General's office proposed several important initiatives. The AG's office has proposed an online training course teaching law enforcement best practices regarding internal affairs and a quick reference guide for employees to keep by the phone when responding to internal affairs inquiries.

"The ACLU-NJ applauds the steps taken by the Attorney General in response to our report, as they will help to ensure citizens have access to the internal affairs process," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Municipal police departments must now follow the Attorney General's lead."

Several county prosecutors have contacted the ACLU-NJ to express their concern with the study's results and are recommitting efforts to ensure that citizens can file internal affairs complaints without unlawful hurdles at police departments within their counties.

To gather the data, ACLU-NJ volunteers called 497 local and specialized departments statewide. The volunteers made it clear that they were not filing a complaint themselves, but seeking information on whether they could file a complaint anonymously, by phone, as a juvenile without a parent present or as a third-party. They also asked if immigration officials would be contacted if an undocumented person wanted to file a complaint. New Jersey allows for complaints to be filed under any of those conditions.

However, more than half of the departments the volunteers made contact with provided at least one incorrect answer to the questions. Many of the volunteers reported they would have given up had they been seeking information to file a complaint themselves. In one instance, an officer in a Hudson County police department stopped speaking and refused to answer basic questions because the volunteer would not give his name. In another instance, an officer in a Middlesex County police department said if the complainant is an "illegal alien, I don't know if he should be running around making complaints." Audio clips of 20 responses from police are embedded in the report, which is available on the ACLU-NJ's website, www.aclu-nj.org/policeia

Only three counties – Cumberland, Morris and Salem – had a majority of their departments provide correct answers, as well as New Jersey Transit Police, which earned a perfect score. One officer in a Morris County police department embraced the spirit of the state's internal affairs laws concerning immigration when he said, "If there is a language barrier, we will make accommodations to hear [his complaint] in his native language."

In 2009, the ACLU-NJ issued a similar report, which also concluded that most departments in New Jersey violated the law when accepting complaints from citizens. Following that study, some departments reached out to the ACLU-NJ to discuss the results, hoping to provide better training to their staff. The departments the ACLU-NJ spoke to following the 2009 study did better as a group in this round of research than those who did not reach out for help.

The ACLU-NJ recognized then, as it does now, that the problems lie mainly in the police personnel who interact with the public most often. Although they are responsible for providing information about internal affairs complaints, many do not know the correct internal affairs policies.

Therefore, in addition to the recent steps the OAG has taken, the ACLU-NJ also recommends the OAG mandate procedures for police departments to provide the public with information about filing internal affairs complaints, automate department phone directories to provide clear information about how to file internal affairs complaints, and regularly subject themselves to tests that make sure they comply with the law.

The ACLU-NJ has produced a roll call training video educating police departments about the best way to respond to internal affairs complaints and issued a quick reference guide for police departments to keep by their phones to help employees respond properly to internal affairs inquiries.

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