TRENTON — The State Police in 2011 punished more troopers for severe misconduct — from excessive force to falsifying reports to pepper-spraying a colleague — than in any year in nearly a decade, according to a newspaper's review of annual internal affairs reports.
But The Star-Ledger of Newark also found the number of complaints filed by the public and troopers fell to 706, the lowest level since 1999, and the State Police got more than 1,100 compliments from the public.
Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes attributed the steady decline in complaints to "staff inspections and proactive management interventions based in statistical analysis."
"It's much better to take corrective actions aimed at prevention than to just react to misconduct," Fuentes said in a statement.
According to the report, 29 troopers in 2011 were disciplined for severe misconduct. The next highest total was 16, in 2003. Reports prior to 2003 do not distinguish between discipline for severe misconduct and lesser infractions.
A spokesman for the State Police, Lt. Stephen Jones, said the 29 cases just happened to come up for a hearing that year and there was no particular significance to the spike.
The report shows one trooper was suspended 60 days for storing and sending pornography on a state cell phone, failing to protect his weapon and improper use of a patrol car. Another was suspended about a year for being pulled over 10 times in 13 months, including three times for drunken driving.
Other troopers were punished for excessive force, lying in investigation reports, failing to document crashes, threatening other troopers, using pepper spray on another trooper, fleeing an accident scene, improper investigations, drunken driving and drug use.
Six troopers quit as part of their punishments, the report said. Another 10 troopers were disciplined for less severe infractions, punishable by up to 30 days suspension, and 44 troopers were issued written reprimands, punishable by up to five days suspension, the report said. Seven troopers were criminally charged.
There were 2,696 troopers on the force as of Dec. 31, 2011. About a quarter of the 2011 complaints were initiated by State Police, the rest by citizens.
The report did not identify any troopers or elaborate on their infractions because the information is considered confidential.
The State Police also received 1,137 compliments for the year, but the report did not include details about what troopers were applauded for doing.
The Star-Ledger review also found the State Police have stopped providing information in the annual discipline reports that was meant to help the public track the progress of internal investigations.
Last year, State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a report that internal State Police investigations were taking too long to complete, potentially allowing misconduct to fester and holding up trooper promotions. The State Police said the delays were justified.
Boxer said delays were largely caused by the state Attorney General's Office, which oversees the State Police and reviews trooper misconduct to determine if criminal charges are warranted. Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said last year that he had taken steps to expedite that process.
Boxer also called on the State Police to develop set guidelines to ensure fair and consistent discipline among the ranks. The State Police have said Fuentes, who makes the final decision on all punishments, needs the flexibility to consider misconduct on a case-by-case basis.
Until 1999, the State Police kept the number of complaints filed by citizens secret, and never disclosed whether any were sustained or whether troopers were disciplined. A state law signed in 2001 required them to produce an annual report on complaints and trooper misdeeds.
Prior to 2006, the division's annual internal affairs reports included information about how many cases were open, how long they had been open, what stage they were in and why they might be on hold. The report also said how long completed cases took to investigate and close.
Jones gave no explanation for why that information is no longer in the reports, but said some of it will be part of an upcoming report by the Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards, which is responsible for overseeing State Police.
Advocates for more transparency in internal affairs said it was important for State Police to show the public that cases and discipline were being handled in a reasonable amount of time.
"Making information public about the average time it's taking cases to move through the system is an important purpose of that report and ought to be included," said Wayne Fisher, a professor at the Rutgers Police Institute who wrote many of New Jersey's internal affairs guidelines.
Alex Shalom, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the discipline report is only a starting point to determine if internal affairs is properly functioning and State Police should provide as much information as possible.
"We need more information and generally the internal affairs process is insufficiently transparent," Shalom said.