The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) claimed today that more than three-quarters of police departments in the state were unable to provide answers or provided wrong answers regarding the basic rules surrounding access to internal affairs.
A report entitled “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” released today, contends that “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.”
“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 report’s primary author.
A legislative panel in Trenton yesterday gave its approval to a pilot program that would give the state Attorney General the power to take over a county or municipal law enforcement agency’s internal affairs unit.
The Attorney General’s office has proposed several important initiatives of its own, including 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.”
At the same time, several county prosecutors have “recommitted” efforts to make sure that citizens can file internal affairs complaints in their counties.
To gather the data, ACLU-NJ said, 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,” the agency wrote. “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,” ACLU-NJ said in a release.
“In one instance,” it said, “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.’
“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.’ “
The agency has posted several audio clips on its website. CLICK HERE:
Three years ago, 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 agency said this morning.
“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.”
The agency offered a “roll call training video educating police departments about the best way to respond to internal affairs complaints,” along with a “quick reference guide for police departments to keep by their phones to help employees respond properly to internal affairs inquiries.”
For a copy of the report, click here: “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs”