In 2012, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union surveyed nearly 500 local police agencies in New Jersey to learn whether they followed the state’s guidelines for handling citizens’ complaints about officer conduct. Volunteers asked basic questions about how a person could file a complaint against a police officer, a function in departments known as internal affairs.
The results were alarming. The majority of the local police departments in the state provided inadequate access or incorrect information about how to make a complaint about officer misconduct. About a quarter of departments had barriers that kept the public from successfully contacting them, whether in the form of confusing automated menus or operators directing callers to officers’ voicemail boxes.
Guidelines from New Jersey’s attorney general dictate that all departments must have an internal affairs unit. The guidelines also make it clear that departments must accept complaints widely. The volunteers asked questions concerning five categories of complaints specifically protected in the AG’s guidelines — those made by telephone, anonymously, through a third party, from a minor and without regard to immigration status.
In only one county, Cumberland, did every department give answers matching the attorney general’s guidelines for all five questions. In one Cumberland County department, an officer added that if the police wanted to follow up with the parents of a juvenile making a complaint, the minor would have to grant them permission first.
In Atlantic County, only four of the 19 departments answered all questions perfectly. Of the 12 police departments in Cape May County, four got them all correct. Additionally, employees of some police departments projected hostility, defensiveness or a readiness to discourage a complainant. Officers of two different Atlantic County departments refused to answer any questions regarding how to go about filing a complaint unless the volunteer could say whether an incident happened with an officer of that department. Another officer from a Cape May County department audibly ate his lunch while rushing through the answers.
Although different departments have different problems, they all add up to the same effect: lack of accountability from the police to the public they’re supposed to serve.
These results should give everyone in New Jersey cause for concern. A properly functioning IA structure roots out abuse, both of the public and officers, and it maintains the public’s trust in the police. Weak internal affairs can destroy a department’s credibility and, ultimately, its ability to serve the public.
Several prosecutors’ offices have taken steps to improve internal affairs in their counties. Camden, Gloucester and Somerset county prosecutors reached out to the ACLU-NJ seeking ways to improve internal affairs. Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray this summer began auditing local police departments to ensure, among other things, that anonymous complaints received appropriate investigations.
In Newark, Police Director Samuel DeMaio went a step further. Officers in the Newark Police Department test the integrity of IA by calling to file a dummy complaint, an authority unique to officers of the law. The department disciplines officers who let reports of serious civil-rights violations fall by the wayside.
After New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa read a draft of the report, the concerns it raised led him to take immediate action. Two new measures planned for this year carry the potential to greatly improve internal affairs statewide. First, the Office of the Attorney General will distribute a laminated quick-reference guide listing the basic protocols of IA for all New Jersey police departments to keep by every phone. Second, the OAG is developing an online training course accessible to all law enforcement employees in the state to train them in the proper guidelines for internal affairs.
These new steps are extremely encouraging. The AG’s top-down emphasis on the importance of citizens’ complaints is vital to reforming internal affairs in the state. However, these undertakings represent only the beginning of what’s necessary. The state — with reinforcement from the county prosecutors — needs to ensure proper training and to apply consistent pressure on local law enforcement to strengthen internal affairs. New Jersey may have policies in place that are intended to ensure citizen access to internal affairs, but as the current troubling data show, the best policies only work in practice if they’re enforced.
Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU-NJ, authored the organization’s 2013 report on local police internal affairs.