Complaints Against NJ Cops Go Unanswered or Unreported

Sally Herships | February 13, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
Civilians who have an issue with a police officer are faced with a maze of contradictory rules and regulations, ones that many police departments can't -- or won't -- sort out.

This story was originally published on the website of WNYC, one of NJ Spotlight’s partners.

A New Jersey Public Radio investigation has found that the citizen complaint process at local police departments is riddled with problems, including retaliation and a lack of oversight from the state. This coincides with a report released today by the ACLU that found local police departments don’t follow state rules when citizens report bad behavior by local cops.

Consider the case of Terence Jones, a stay-at-home dad, who was driving home to New Jersey after dropping off his son in Philadelphia. As he drove through Woolwich Township, Jones missed a turn and got lost in an industrial area.

Then he passed a police car. The cop’s headlights shined on him, so Jones says the officer could see he was black. The officer pulled out and started following him — for five minutes.

The patrol car, driven by officer Michael Schaeffer, pulled Jones over and things went downhill from there. Schaeffer wanted to know what Jones had been doing in an industrial area, when all the businesses were closed, at midnight. The questioning went on for 20 minutes.

“If I had any drugs. You know, just your typical racist questions.”

The stop was caught on video by a camera on Schaeffer’s car. A few days later, Jones filed a complaint against the officer. And then, he got a phone call from the county prosecutor’s office. He was told he had two hours to turn himself in before he would be arrested. He was being accused of filing a false complaint against the police, facing jail time of eighteen months.

Jones didn’t go to jail. In the transcript of the hearing where Jones was found innocent, the judge found the police behavior appalling.

“On a night when it was negative nine degrees outside, according to the testimony or according to the video,” the judge said. “And to turn that complaint about the way he was stopped, the method of questioning, the search of his car. Learning into his car, which in and of itself is a search. To turn it from that into a complaint against Mr. Jones is unbelievable.”

According to New Jersey law, citizens are supposed to be protected from retaliation when they file a complaint on police behavior. But according to a report by the ACLU of New Jersey, the entire system for filing complaints against cops is broken.

The rules for filing complaints against police in New Jersey are not what they should be, according to Alex Shalom, a lawyer and investigator with the ACLU. Citizens can file by phone, anonymously, or even through a third party. But the police, even if they want to help, don’t seem to know the rules, he said.

The ACLU called about five hundred police departments around the state and pretended to have questions about making a complaint. The recorded calls show, again and again, police employees giving blatantly wrong answers to the questions posed by the ACLU. One-tenth of all police departments, 51 of those surveyed, didn’t get any questions right. One caller to a Monmouth county police department was even told it was a busy day and to try to Google the answer.

“No. No complaints can be taken over the phone — we can’t identify with whom we’re speaking,” said an officer at the Wyckoff Police Department.

“It’s got to be done in person.”

Then the caller asks if there’s any way to do it anonymously.

“No, an anonymous complaint against an officer — that’s — absolutely not, that would never happen in any jurisdiction ever,” the officer says.

Fewer than a quarter of police departments were able to answer all the ACLU’s questions correctly. So New Jersey’s Attorney General, Jeffrey Chiesa, is trying to fix the problem. He says his office is going to distribute laminated cards with the rules to police departments and create a mandatory training for employees who may find themselves fielding complaints.

But even if complaints are filed, there are still serious problems with the system. Even though the Attorney General’s office receives yearly summaries of complaints from every police department in the state, the paperwork is largely ignored, according to Rich Rivera, a former cop who now works on improving the complaint process for the Soros Foundation.

Between 2005 and 2011, Rivera said, the number of in-custody deaths in New Jersey has more than doubled. But even if the records were analyzed there wouldn’t be much data.

“It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know,” said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Date, time location, department, officer, what are contextual circumstances, where’s all the rich context of the incident, so we can uncover patterns and trends,” he said.

According to internal affairs summary reports obtained by New Jersey Public Radio through New Jersey’s Open Records act, more than a thousand complaints of excessive force were filed against police officers in New Jersey in 2011.

But what does that number really mean?

The records sent to the Attorney General don’t show whether there are three complaints against three different officers, or multiple problems with one. Shane says, unless this is corrected we can’t learn anything from the numbers.

“If you don’t have data, you can’t improve the practice. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it. And we don’t have the data.”

The attorney general’s office says it looks for red flags in the numbers, like repeat violations by a municipality, but it wouldn’t tell me more.

Yet another problem with the citizen complaint process is how rarely a citizen is believed. When civilians complain about police using excessive force, the officer is found guilty only three and a half percent of the time. But when an officer files a complaint about another officer he or she is found guilty about half the time.

“So if I’m a captain and you’re a sergeant and you say, you saw Bill without his hat on, I believe you. But, if Bill is a civilian and Bill says, ‘oh well, I saw this officer run through a red light,’ prove it to me.”

This story was produced with help from Damiano Marchetti.