Disconnected
How accessible is the SPD when it comes to complaints against officers?
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Mar 24, 2013 | 4642 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
According to the ACLU-NJ, “fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”
According to the ACLU-NJ, “fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”
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In early 2010, a tearful Union City resident showed up at a Secaucus Town Council meeting and described an alleged incident with a Secaucus police officer who, she said, had behaved unprofessionally and disrespectful to her.

Recounting the incident, the woman told the Town Council that after being pulled over by the officer for a traffic violation, he allegedly called her “An onion from onion city.”

Offended, she said she reported the incident to the Secaucus Police Department. At the time, the woman was seeking no more than an official apology.

The Union City resident did not detail what happened when she made her complaint to the Secaucus Police Department.

But according to a report issued last month by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), members of the public who try to report similar alleged incidents in Secaucus may be stymied.

The report, titled “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” surveyed how regular people are treated when they call local police departments and inquire about how to make a complaint against an officer.

The organization called 497 municipalities across the state of New Jersey, including all 14 municipalities in Hudson County. Among the 14 Hudson County cities, the ACLU-NJ found that four provided accurate, complete information to callers who inquired about internal affairs complaint procedures. Another five cities gave inaccurate or incomplete information to callers. Five municipalities, including Secaucus, were found to have what the ACLU-NJ considered “bad access,” meaning they weren’t able to supply information regarding how to file a complaint, for one reason or another.

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The purpose of the most recent report was to see how much progress has been made since 2009.

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In the case of Secaucus, a police department employee kept an ACLU caller on hold for several minutes, then tried to transfer the call, which was then dropped.

“We coded Secaucus [as having] bad access,” said ACLU-NJ staff attorney Alexander Shalom, who oversaw the study. “They didn’t give us any incorrect answers. But, if we had been a member of the public calling to try and get this information, that would not be acceptable.”

Without seeing the report, Town Administrator David Drumeler called the organization’s experience with the Secaucus Police Department “unfortunate,” but said “it is not typical.”

“For the most part, we use civilian dispatchers to answer the phones and they probably had to wait for the desk sergeant on duty to get free,” Drumeler explained. “Depending on what the desk sergeant was doing, they may have had to wait. I’ve never received a complaint that it was difficult to file an internal affairs complaint. And since I’ve been here, we’ve had some filed. They were investigated an acted upon as appropriate.”

ACLU: ‘Police agencies violate state law’

“The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs” retraces the path of an earlier, similar survey done by the ACLU-NJ in 2009. That survey, whose results were also published in a report, found that a “majority of [police] departments failed to follow [state] law and the guidelines regarding individuals’ rights to file internal affairs complaints.”

These rights were established on a statewide level in the 1990s.

In 1991, according to the ACLU-NJ, the state attorney general issued a set of guidelines, known officially as the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures, to assist local police departments. These guidelines were updated in 1992 and then again in 2000. They were later made into a state law.

Among other things, the law requires all law enforcement agencies in New Jersey, regardless of size, to adopt internal affairs complaint procedures that are consistent with the attorney general’s guidelines. The law also specifically addresses whether complaints can be made by noncitizens, juveniles, third party witnesses, over the phone, or anonymously.

After the ACLU-NJ concluded in 2009 that “the majority of police agencies violate the law by limiting the time, place, and, and manner in which citizens can file complaints,” the organization began working with law enforcement to improve internal affairs procedures.

The purpose of the most recent report was to see how much progress has been made since 2009.

According to the organization, little progress has been made since then.

“The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” concludes, “There has been no significant improvement since the ACLU-NJ published its 2009 [internal affairs] report. Once again, fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”

Methodology

Using a team of volunteers, the ACLU-NJ had people call 497 police departments to ask their procedure on how to file an internal affairs complaint against an officer.

“The volunteers were not allowed to say, ‘I have an internal affairs complaint to file,’ because that would be filing a false complaint,” Shalom explained. “So, all they were allowed to do was ask questions about how to do so.”

The volunteers made their calls in June and July of last year.

The volunteers made their calls from the ACLU-NJ offices during normal weekday business hours. They did not identify themselves as ACLU volunteers. During their calls, the volunteers were trained to ask five questions. The volunteers asked: Whether a complaint against an officer can be filed anonymously; whether a complaint can be filed by a juvenile without the participation of a parent or guardian; whether an undocumented immigrant can make a complaint without being reported to immigration officials; whether a complaint can be filed by a third party; and whether a complaint can be filed over the phone.

“The correct answers are, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes,’ ” said Shalom.

Four Hudson County municipalities – including Jersey City, Weehawken, Union City, and West New York – provided what the ACLU called “good access” to volunteers when they called. This means the volunteers received the correct answers to these five questions.

Departments that answered one or more questions incorrectly were given the “bad answer” label in the ACLU-NJ report.

Departments that seemed reticent to help the callers, or that couldn’t answer the volunteers’ questions, were deemed to have “bad access” by the organization. This is the category into which the Secaucus Police Department fell.

“Candidly, I don’t have an officer just waiting around for internal affairs complaints to come in,” said Drumeler. “It’s just not a good use of resources.”

One try

For the departments, the margin of error was very slim, since volunteers made only one call to most departments. In other words, if an ACLU volunteer was accidentally disconnected, as was the case with the Secaucus Police Department, rarely was an attempt was made to call the department a second time.

“We didn’t want to tie up valuable law enforcement resources calling multiple times,” said Shalom. “But also, the bottom line is, if you’re a member of the public you should at least get the correct answer the first time you call.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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