Taking a Big Bite out of NJ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Caren Chesler | December 11, 2017 | Politics
Lesniak bill would shut down troubled agency, but will it get a hearing in the lame-duck legislative session?

After a scathing state report painted the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a dysfunctional organization that was failing to enforce the state’s animal cruelty laws, and a two-part series by NJ Spotlight that detailed the organization’s questionable practices, the Senate will soon vote on a bill that calls for abolishing the NJSPCA and handing its duties over to law enforcement.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union County), would disband the NJSPCA over a 13-month period and shift law enforcement to county prosecutors and humane law enforcement officers hired by each municipality. The whole structure would be under the attorney general’s supervision. The measure moved easily out of the Senate Economic Growth committee last week with unanimous support. It is expected to be voted on by the full Senate this Thursday.

Lesniak said he sponsored the last legislation aimed at reforming the NJSPCA, back in 2006, a law that put gubernatorial appointees on the agency’s board and called for greater governmental oversight, including the filing of annual and quarterly reports with the attorney general’s office. But those reforms did not do the job, he said.

Unsuccessful effort at greater oversight

“Both governors either didn’t fill the positions or the people on the board did not do their job. Same thing with the reports to the AG, which were either not done or when they were done, they weren’t followed up by the AG,” Lesniak said. “That effort for greater oversight was not successful.”

Since then, New York City has moved enforcement of its animal cruelty laws from an SPCA to local police, moving the function into the hands of professional law enforcement, and that effort is working well, he said. He wanted to follow their lead.

For now, the bill has an uncertain fate. It passed through the Senate Environment committee last week, but because there were potential cost issues, it was referred to the Senate Economic Growth
Committee, and it was there it hit a snag. At a hearing Monday, Lesniak said it did not have the support of any Republicans, and one Democrat said there were cost concerns raised by the New Jersey Association of Counties. The bill was held until the budget committee’s next hearing, on December 14.

Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Sen. Raymond Lesniak
“I will answer (those budget concerns) on December 14 and expect to get bipartisan support for its release from committee, as it had when it was unanimously released from my committee,” Lesniak said.

On the Assembly side, the issue may be time constraints. The bill is waiting to be heard by the Assembly Environment Committee, which doesn’t meet until December 18, if it meets at all. If it does meet — it’s up to the committee chair and legally, the Assembly Speaker — there’s plenty of time for the full Assembly to vote on it, either January 4 and January 8. The question is whether the Assembly Environment Committee will meet at all. Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Hamilton Square) did not return calls for comment.

“It’s not uncertain, but it’s not a shoe-in,” Lesniak said. “I can’t say right now how it will go in the Assembly, but I expect it to pass and be signed by Christie.

The bill requires each municipality to appoint a humane law enforcement officer (HLEO) to investigate and enforce state and local animal cruelty laws and sign complaints when violations occur. The HLEO could be an animal control officer, police officer, or anyone who undergoes humane law-enforcement training. The HLEO would be allowed to carry a firearm, provided they have completed a firearms training course approved by the Police Training Commission and that they update this certification each year. Among the State Commission of Investigations’ complaints in its report was that some NJSPCA members carried firearms and yet they did not have proper training or certification.

Enforcing animal-cruelty laws

The bill requires each county prosecutor to create an animal-cruelty task force, to enforce the state’s animal-cruelty laws. The task force would include at least one animal-cruelty prosecutor, whose job would be to investigate and prosecute those who violate-animal cruelty statutes. The task force would also designate a county SPCA. While the bill dissolves the state SPCA, it leaves the existing county SPCAs intact, though they will no longer have any law enforcement powers. They will simply oversee animal welfare issues and shelters.

When the reform effort took place back in 2006, rather than requiring NJSPCA officers to undergo police-certified training, police could have been trained to conduct animal-cruelty investigations, said Maya Richmond, executive director of the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees. Allowing police to handle such complaints will not just align New Jersey with many other cities and states, but it will hopefully speed up the response time to complaints, she said.

“The cited 12 days to respond to animal-abuse complaints is not reasonable,” Richmond said.

Both Richmond and Lesniak noted that catching animal abuse early and effectively is important, not just for the welfare of the animals but also because there’s a connection between violence toward animals and violence toward humans, such as domestic violence.

Walter Mychalchyk, who heads up the Middlesex County SPCA, says he’s disappointed the bill takes investigative powers away from the county SPCA’s, but he’s glad it abolishes the state organization.

‘A disgrace’

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and they’ve been a disgrace ever since I’ve been there. And it’s just been getting worse and worse and worse,” Mychalchyk said. “They were getting sued every time they wrote a complaint. We’ve never been sued at all.”

The bill was introduced in the wake of what was the second damning report the state SCI has written about the agency in 17 years. The latest report, released in October and titled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: New Jersey’s SPCAs 17 Years Later,” found the nonprofit group fails to respond to animal cruelty complaints in a timely manner, spends exorbitant sums on legal billings rather than on animal care, and remains a haven for “wannabe” cops — some of whom believe they can use police powers, like making traffic stops, that go beyond the enforcement of the animal-cruelty statutes.

“The NJSPCA — as constituted and governed, then and now — is and has been a dysfunctional organization,” the SCI wrote in its report. It accused the agency of waste and abuse, conflicts of interest and self-aggrandizement, and said it routinely took a cavalier approach to financial and operational accountability, at the expense of donors and volunteers who wanted to help abused animals. The SCI called for the immediate repeal of statutes empowering the SPCA to enforce New Jersey’s animal-cruelty laws and said the job should be handled by local animal control officers, police, or health departments.

“We stand by the core recommendation we made 17 years ago and that we repeated this past October: Responsibility for enforcing New Jersey’s animal-cruelty laws — like other legitimate elements of law enforcement — should be placed within the qualified framework of government and performed by trained professionals,” said SCI Executive Director Lee C. Seglem. “We are pleased to see that in recent days, legislation, S-3558, has been introduced with provisions designed to accomplish that salutary objective. This is an important step toward finally bringing some sense and rationality to the fundamentals of enforcing these vital laws.”

Seglem said the SCI found in its follow-up inquiry that the problems identified in the SPCA system in 2001 not only persisted but in fact may have gotten worse. But previous attempts to reform the organization after the first report had failed, due to the NJSPCA’s powerful lobbying efforts.

“We’re hopeful that these new findings spur legislative action to finally modernize the state’s archaic system for the enforcement of the animal cruelty laws,” he said.

The NJSCPA has argued it needs better support from the state to do its job. Tim Martin, a lobbyist for the NJSPCA, told the Senate committee two weeks ago that it welcomed any effort that brings in the cooperation of the attorney general’s office and county and local government. They just wanted to be a part of it, he said. The organization did not respond to several requests for comment.

In May of this year, NJ Spotlight published a two-part series looking into the practices of the NJSPCA, and detailing questionable financial practices, loss of its tax-exempt status, and alleged conflicts of interest.

The second story in the series revealed how the organization rode roughshod over local animal protection services that objected to its practices, including handcuffing and imprisoning an 84-year-old woman.

The NJSPCA declined to comment on the pending legislation, as did the governor’s and attorney general’s offices.