The Union City and West New York police departments scored perfectly on a survey recently conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that anonymously tested the ability of law enforcement agencies throughout the state to answer basic questions about filing complaints against an officer.
Of the 14 local and specialized departments given the test in Hudson County, the municipalities were two of only four that scored perfectly, while nearly three quarters of the departments statewide failed.
The police departments in Weehawken and Jersey City also scored perfectly. Hoboken and North Bergen were among those who failed.
The survey was anonymously conducted by volunteers at the civil liberties organization, who called the departments without identifying themselves. They asked five questions: whether a complaint could be filed anonymously, over the telephone, by a third party, by a juvenile without parental consent, or by an undocumented immigrant without fear of immigration authorities being alerted.
The correct answer to all the questions, according to the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures outlined by the state Attorney General’s Office, is yes.
The volunteers who conducted the survey wrote a short account of their dealings with each department. In the case of both West New York and Union City, ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom commented that the volunteers were highly satisfied with the responses.
Officers in West New York and Union City “highly responsive and well-informed,” according to the ACLU.
West New York Police Director Michael Indri said he wasn’t surprised that his officers aced the survey.
“Everyone in the department, not just officers who work in Internal Affairs, are trained to take a complaint from anyone who wants to file one,” he said. “Even if it’s during our off hours and an officer working in Internal Affairs isn’t immediately available, any complaints are forwarded to them immediately.”
Union City Acting Police Chief Richard Molinari, who worked in Internal Affairs himself before taking over for former Chief Brian Barrett last month, said that since the attorney general’s protocols are included in every officer’s copy of the overall police guidelines, every officer should be naturally versed in taking complaints.
“Because promotions are so coveted in a lot of departments, ours especially, officers are already studying these guidelines for months or maybe years,” he said.
Molinari stated that in 2011, when the attorney general enhanced its internal affairs guidelines significantly, many of the policies were already normal practice in Union City.
According to Shalom, who spearheaded the study, departments were given one of three scores. Either they answered all five questions correctly and were given a good score, or answered them incorrectly and failed. Departments that either answered the questions correctly but acted standoffish or failed to answer the questions because an officer couldn’t be reached were given a “bad access” grade.
The key is training
Shalom, who also conducted a similar study in 2009 and then worked with departments statewide to improve their internal affairs practices, said that he believed the underlying issue behind the majority of departments failing was simply a lack of training.
“A lot of departments have had to deal with significant cuts to funding, and as a result, personnel, so it’s not always a chief or ranking internal affairs officer that a caller is connected to,” he said. “This means that anyone who’s going to be answering phones has to be properly trained.”
Officers in both Union City and West New York attend a weeklong training course at the attorney general’s office before they can serve in their respective internal affairs divisions. But both chiefs said that the key to operating a successful internal affairs division goes further than simply meeting the attorney general’s guidelines.
“It’s important that internal affairs officers, who really do have a tough job, know that they have the support of the town and the director behind them, as well as the support of the officers,” said Indri.
High stakes, tough tasks
Molinari explained that some complaints can be exceedingly difficult to investigate and said he understood that this can result in the complainant feeling frustrated, but that they should not feel deterred.
“A lot of the times these are cases of ‘he said, she said’ and there’s not a ton of actual facts available,” he said. “But its important that a member of the public understands that if they feel they’ve been wronged, they can count on us to do a thorough and fair investigation.”
Sergeant Walter Laurencio, who heads Union City’s Internal Affairs division, said that although his job sometimes lands him in the uncomfortable position of investigating a colleague, he looks at it as a duty. And he also has the duty of informing a complainant that an investigation has concluded that their concern was unfounded.
“I try to keep the idea of fairness in my mind,” he said. “Unfortunately sometimes fairness means telling a civilian that what they thought was police misconduct in fact wasn’t, and treating officers with the same type of respect.”
Shalom echoed their sentiments, and said that the access of information on how to file a complaint is all the more important because of the already-existing negative perception surrounding internal affairs.
“You’re essentially talking about someone who already feels wronged asking a police department to investigate itself,” he said. “If the department can’t answer their questions or makes it difficult for the caller to understand them, then [the complainant] might feel like there’s no recourse.”
Lots of calls
All in all, both departments seem to take complaints against their officers seriously. In 2012, West New York accepted 28 complaints while Union City, a larger municipality with a larger department, accepted 100.
Indri said that of his 28 complaints, 12 were unsustained, 8 resulted in the investigated officer being exonerated, 1 was sustained and resulted in a 30-day suspension, and three were handled administratively, meaning a verbal or written warning was issued. Four of the investigations are ongoing. Of the 100 complaints in Union City, 41 resulted in some disciplinary action being taken, according to Laurencio.
All local departments are required to alert the attorney general’s office of any suspensions over 10 days, and also submit quarterly and yearly internal affairs reports.
Indri said he was proud of his Internal Affairs division, and added that he hoped West New York residents always feel comfortable filing a complaint.
“I’m proud of our perfect score, but it’s not something I’m going to rest my laurels on,” he said. “But the townspeople have my word that if they think they’ve been wronged by an officer, we’ll do a proper and thorough investigation.”
Shalom said that he has spoken to officials from 40 departments since the ACLU’s report was released, explaining what their officers did wrong and how they could fix it.
“This is an issue on the move. The brass are recognizing that it’s a big problem with an easy solution,” he said. “If we were to test again in a few years, I’m confident the results would be more satisfactory.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org