A longer version of my WNYC story on New Jersey’s broken police complaint system. Shorter version and radio version are here.
New Jersey has more centralized power in Trenton to provide oversight over local police departments than most states. But a New Jersey Public Radio investigation has found the complaint system it runs collects reams of useless data that collect dust at the state capitol. And the way that information is collected also is flawed. Today, the ACLU of New Jersey released a study citing problems with the civilian complaint process against officers. The study finds that this checks and balances system, set up to help protect civilians from bad cops, may be broken.
In 2007 Terence Jones, a stay at home dad, was driving home to New Jersey after dropping off his son in Philadelphia. It was February, late at night and cold and on his way through Woolwich Township, Jones missed a turn. So he pulled into the parking lot of a trailer rental company to turn around.
On his way out of the parking lot Jones drove by a police officer parked at a WaWa convenience store. The police car had its headlights on so Jones says he could see the officer was white and the officer could see he was black. The cop pulled out and started following him – for five minutes. Which Jones says may not sound like a long time, but really is.
“Talking about a patrol car on your bumper for five minutes,” he said.
The patrol car, driven by officer Michael Schaeffer, pulled Jones over and things went downhill from there. Schaeffer wanted to know what Jones had been doing in an industrial area, where all the businesses were closed, at midnight. He asked where Jones was coming from, but refused to accept his answer of Philadelphia. The questioning went on for twenty minutes in minus 9 degree weather.
“If I had any drugs. You know, just your typical racist questions.”
Later in court, Schaeffer would testify that Jones hadn’t broken any traffic laws. That instead, he’d pulled him over as part of a “community care taking function”. Jones hadn’t done anything wrong. But Schaeffer kept asking permission to search his car. Jones refused. And we don’t just have Jones’ word for it, the stop was videotaped by Schaeffer’s patrol car.
And though it was mostly off camera, according to the judge’s remarks in the court transcripts it seems likely that Schaeffer searched part of the car anyway – illegally. A few days later Jones filed a complaint about the stop. And about three months after that he got a phone call from the county prosecutor’s office. The person on the other end of the phone told him he had two hours to turn himself in before he would be arrested. Jones was being accused of filing a false complaint against the police, and facing jail time of eighteen months.
Jones didn’t go to jail. In the transcript of the hearing where he was found innocent the judge said for the police to turn a complaint into an arrest was appalling.
Retaliation, like this, by the police, is one of the things people are worried about when they make complaints. But according to the ACLU of New Jersey the whole system for filing complaints against the police is broken. Alex Shalom, a lawyer and investigator with the ACLU of NJ, says to be clear, the rules for filing complaints are great — you can file by phone, you can file them anonymously, you can file them through a third party. Shalom says in most cases, the police want to help — the problem is they don’t seem to know the rules.
The ACLU did a survey where employees called about five hundred police departments around the state to see how well complaints are handled. They pretended to have questions about how the complaint process worked and the results, recorded on scratchy sounding phone tape, were dismal. Again and again, police and civilian employees were captured giving blatantly wrong answers to the questions posed by the ACLU. 51 police departments, about a tenth of all the ones surveyed, didn’t get any questions right. One caller to a Monmouth county police department was even told it was a busy day and to try to Google the answer instead.
The transcript below is taken from a typical call, in this case, to the Wyckoff police department in northern Jersey where an officer incorrectly told the caller he couldn’t file a complaint anonymously or over the phone.
Police department: “No. No complaints can be taken over the phone – we can’t identify with whom we’re speaking. It’s go to be done in person, it’s got to be done when Lt. Van Dyke is here.”
Caller: “Ok, so he can’t do it anonymously then?”
Police department: “No, an anonymous complaint against an officer – that’s – absolutely not, that would never happen in any jurisdiction ever.”
Fewer than a quarter of police departments were able to answer all the ACLU’s questions correctly. So New Jersey’s Attorney General, Jeffrey Chiesa, is trying to fix the problem. He says his office is going to distribute laminated cards with the rules to police departments and create a mandatory training for employees who may find themselves fielding complaints.
But even if complaints make it through the system there are still serious problems. Rich Rivera, who used to be an officer in what he says was one of the most corrupt precincts in New Jersey, West NY, and now has a fellowship from the Soros Foundation to improve the complaint process, says to see hard evidence of this we don’t need to look farther than Elizabeth, New Jersey. The city has one of the highest rates of in-custody deaths in the entire state.
Rivera says even though the Attorney General’s office receives yearly summaries of complaints from every police department in the state the paperwork is largely ignored. Complaints are meant to be used as an early warning system, and Rivera says this lack of oversight has created what he calls a crisis of accountability and is leading to serious problems – even deaths.
Between 2005 and 2011, Rivera says the number of in-custody deaths in New Jersey has more than doubled. But the problems don’t stop there. Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a retired captain of the Newark police department, says even if the records were analyzed there wouldn’t be much to glean from the data. Shane says the data that makes it all the way to the top, to the attorney general’s office, is so summarized it’s almost useless.
“It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. You know, date, time location, department, officer, what are contextual circumstances, where’s all the rich context of the incident, so we can uncover patterns and trends,” he said.
According to internal affairs summary reports that I received through New Jersey’s Open Records act in 2011 there were over a thousand complaints of excessive force against police in New Jersey. But what does that number really mean? The records sent to the Attorney General lump together numbers — 10 complaints of excessive force, 13 complaints about demeanor. You can’t tell if the forms are listing three complaints against three different officers, or multiple problems with one. Shane says, until this is corrected we won’t learn anything from the numbers.
“If you don’t have data, you can’t improve the practice. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it. And we don’t have the data.”
The attorney general’s office says it looks for red flags in the numbers, like repeat violations by a municipality, but it wouldn’t tell me more. Professor Candace McCoy, who teaches criminal justice policy at John Jay, says, finding red flags in data this limited is simply not possible. In part because of how counterintuitive these numbers are. She says police will always get complaints – it just means they’re doing their job. And, while it may not seem obvious, the departments where you see the least complaints can signify the worst problems. After all, a lack of complaints can be a strong indicator that the police there are not open to listening to the public.
McCoy says when it comes to the data currently collected by the Attorney General’s office it’s irrelevant. She says it’s not that the process is broken, but simply that it was never meant to be a system of checks and balances in the first place.
In 1990, an unarmed black teenager was shot in the back by a white cop in Teaneck. There were riots in the streets and one year later this requirement, that local police to send yearly summaries of their complaint data to the attorney general, was put in place. The requirement is now over 20 years old. McCoy says at the time the new rules were groundbreaking, but they were never meant to be more than a nudge to local police – a reminder to take complaints seriously.
“If you want to be serious about complaint procedures and citizen police interaction, a silly little form, filed in Trenton, isn’t going to do it,” she says.
In the meantime Rich Rivera, the Soros Fellow, say yet another part of the complaint system is broken. When civilians complain about police using excessive force, the officer is found guilty only three and a half percent of the time. But when an officer files a complaint about another officer he or she is found guilty about half the time. This doesn’t surprise criminal justice professor John Shane.
“So if I’m a Captain and you’re a Sergeant and you say, you saw Bill without his hat on, I believe you. But, if Bill is a civilian and Bill says, “oh well, I saw this officer run through a red light,” prove it to me.”
Candace McCoy says one fix for New Jersey would be to implement what’s called an early warning system. A database that collects and analyzes much more through information. They’re used by many big cities –like Oakland, California, which McCoy says has a big problem with police misconduct. Even better, she says, would be for the state to do what the ACLU already has. Spot checks to make sure things are working properly.
Since his traffic stop in Woolwich Township Terence Jones has settled out of court with the police department which pulled him over. He’s also become a civil rights advocate and has now filed over twenty complaints against the police on behalf of other people. But he says he’s not getting any answers. The office of the Gloucester county prosecutor, where Jones sent his complaints, says because it was in court with Jones it forwarded them to the Attorney General. But the Attorney General’s office says it can’t comment on complaints being handled by the county. Rich Rivera says until there’s more oversight in place our system of policing the police, will remain broken. And the Terence Jones of the world will remain stuck at the metaphorical sides of the road.