Internal Affairs Divisions Dismissing 99% Of Misconduct Cases Against New Jersey Police Officers

from the another-argument-for-recording-officers-during-arrests dept

Not all cops are bad, but the insulation from accountability begins with the departments themselves, which often go out of their way to defend the actions of abusive officers. In some cases, pressure from police unions has kept unruly officers on the job despite the departments' efforts to remove them. Other times, the insulating force is also the first line of officer accountability: Internal Affairs. Often depicted as a hated entity within the force, the Internal Affairs division is supposed to be the public's first line of defense against cops who abuse their power. As documents obtained by the Courier News and Home News Tribune show, dozens of complaints against central New Jersey police officers are dismissed every year without ever making it past these departments' internal review mechanisms.

From 2008 to 2012, citizens filed hundreds of complaints alleging brutality, bias and civil rights violations by officers in more than seven dozen police departments in Central Jersey…

Just 1 percent of all excessive force complaints were sustained by internal affairs units in Central Jersey, the review found. That’s less than the national average of 8 percent, according to a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in 2007.

Elizabeth, for example, processed 203 such complaints in the five-year period and not once sided with a complainant. Woodbridge had 84 complaints, New Brunswick had 81, Perth Amboy had 50 and Linden had 33. In all those cases, these agencies either “exonerated” the officers, dismissed the complaints as frivolous, determined that they did not have sufficient evidence or simply never closed the investigations.
Nationwide numbers aren't all that encouraging, with only 8% of complaints being sustained, but the New Jersey police departments are pitching near shutouts. These numbers can be taken to mean that either these departments only staff exemplary officers -- or that many cases boil down to not much more than the complainant's word against the officer's, something that rarely goes the complainant's way.

On a positive note, the journalists were able to compile the numbers thanks to New Jersey's Open Public Records Act which requires police departments to tally and track complaints, including how each case is disposed. On the downside, almost all information related to the officers involved is redacted.
Except in race cases, complaints against officers and how officers were disciplined — which can range from spoken or written reprimands to suspensions or termination — are kept confidential.

The tallies of complaints and how they were disposed are public records, as are use of force reports, which officers are required to file whenever they use bodily force or weapons to subdue a suspect. The public also has the right to read synopses of all complaints where a fine or suspension of at least 10 days was assessed. But the identities of officers, as well as the complainants, have to be redacted from these documents.
As Sergio Bachao of My Central Jersey points out, this provides public officers with more protection than it does private citizens. Complaints and disciplinary rulings against licensed professionals in the private sector are posted by the state using these citizens' full names. Obviously, doing so makes these professionals more accountable and provides other members of the public with info they can use to avoid potential scams, etc.

The redactions work the opposite way in these public records, protecting those who have been accused of wrongdoing. It's often not until a case has finally made its way to the courtroom that these officers' "rap sheets" are exposed. And in most cases, officers accused of deploying excessive force or abusing their power will be serial violators -- something that would have been noticed earlier if not for these redactions.
In the wake of the Deloatch investigation, then-Sgt. Richard Rowe was charged with mishandling 81 internal affairs in New Brunswick from 2003 to 2007. He was sentenced in August to two years of probation. The Home News Tribune also reported that Berdel had been investigated at least seven times by internal affairs, including once for an excessive force complaint. The complaints either were not sustained or never resolved.
One NJ assemblyman thinks he has a solution.
Assemblyman Peter Barnes III, D-Middlesex, said that all internal affairs investigations should be handled by county prosecutors or the state Attorney General’s Office.

“It’s long since past the day where you can say with a straight face that it’s OK to have officers investigate their own. It just isn’t a good system,” Barnes said.
Barnes has a bit too much confidence that prosecutors and state AGs will be a more "neutral" force than Internal Affairs. These entities operate in concert with police officers to prosecute accused wrongdoers. The close relationships with police departments are often hard to disentangle when an officer is facing potential criminal charges. It's not unheard of for misconduct cases to finally reach the AG level only to find the AG unwilling to pursue charges.

AGs and prosecutors often believe they're in the business of "fighting crime" (some even run for election using a "tough on crime" platform) when in reality they're only part of a system aimed at providing justice. Because of this misconception, prosecutors and AGs consider police officers to be allies in the war on crime and tend to be rather lenient when charged with prosecuting officer misconduct.

There's probably no perfect solution for this problem but some extra steps could mitigate a lot of these concerns. To be sure, there are a large number of complaints that fall into the "frivolous" category, meaning the percentage of misconduct cases that result in any sort of disciplinary action will still remain rather low. But requiring some sort of independent oversight would be a start. As it stands now, an internal division reviews these cases and, should it believe criminal charges might be in order, it forwards them to state AGs and prosecutors -- who are often as reluctant to pursue charges as the department itself.

Another suggestion would be the use of body cameras by police officers. Although officers and police departments still retain some control over the footage collected, early use has indicated that they tend to reduce complaints of misconduct or excessive force. Citizens are less likely to file frivolous complaints knowing there's footage of the incident, and officers are less likely to deploy excessive force for the same reason.

At this point though, with only 1% of complaints being sustained, citizens have very little reason to believe the system will hold bad cops accountable. Likewise, bad cops can look to the 99% "clearance rate" as an indicator that their bad behavior will go unpunished, if not unnoticed.

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Filed Under: internal affairs, new jersey, police

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