ACLU study finds problems with police departments’ handling of internal affairs questions

NEWARK – A report released Tuesday by the N.J. American Civil Liberties Union claims that local police departments do a less than stellar job handling internal affairs complaints brought by residents.

The report, “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” states that a resident attempting to file an internal affairs complaint is more likely to encounter hostility or misinformation.

The study stated that more than three-quarters of police departments were unable to provide answers or provided wrong answers regarding the basic rules surrounding access to internal affairs.

“When citizens are given wrong information or are dissuaded from filing internal affairs complaints with a police department, it gives them no faith that the same department will conduct thorough and fair investigations into allegations of officer misconduct,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom, the primary author of the report. “And it is hard for citizens to have faith in police departments that cannot police themselves.”

The issue of how internal affairs complaints should be handled was front and center during an Assembly Judiciary hearing on Monday, when the committee released a bill that would establish a two-year pilot program to have the Attorney General’s office handle IA matters in selected police departments.

The Attorney General’s office, which already has authority to assume IA jurisdiction, informed the committee that it would be a daunting task for the AG’s office to have to handle IA cases throughout the state’s more than 500 police departments.

Regarding the ACLU report, the agency said it provided the AG’s office with an early draft.

As a result, the AG’s office has proposed an online training course teaching law enforcement best practices regarding internal affairs and a quick reference guide for employees to keep by the phone when responding to internal affairs inquiries, the ACLU stated. 

“The ACLU-NJ applauds the steps taken by the Attorney General in response to our report, as they will help to ensure citizens have access to the internal affairs process,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Municipal police departments must now follow the Attorney General’s lead.”  

To gather the data, ACLU-NJ volunteers called 497 local and specialized departments statewide. The volunteers made it clear that they were not filing a complaint themselves, but seeking information on whether they could file a complaint anonymously, by phone, as a juvenile without a parent present or as a third-party, the ACLU said.

However, more than half of the departments the volunteers made contact with provided at least one incorrect answer to the questions, according to the ACLU. In one instance, an officer in a Hudson County police department stopped speaking and refused to answer basic questions because the volunteer would not give his name, the ACLU stated.

In another instance, an officer in a Middlesex County police department said if the complainant is an “illegal alien, I don’t know if he should be running around making complaints.” 

Only three counties – Cumberland, Morris and Salem – had a majority of their departments provide correct answers, as well as New Jersey Transit Police, which earned a perfect score.

Earlier story:

Internal Affairs pilot program bill advances ACLU study finds problems with police departments’ handling of internal affairs questions