Former West New York Police Officer Richard Rivera has lived a lot since he called out 30 members of his own department for their illegal involvement in racketeering in 1994. The scandal led to the conviction of the police chief and charges against 30 officers.
Seventeen years later, Rivera is stronger, wiser, and busier than before. Morally he is the same man, and the motivation that led him to make that life-changing call to the FBI is the very same motivation that drives his many-faceted career today.
Rivera volunteers over 30 hours a week as chairman of Civil Rights Protection at the Latino Leadership Alliance (LLANJ) – New Jersey’s largest advocacy group for the Latino community – and runs his own self-titled personal consulting firm, Richard Rivera, L.L.C. The firm advocates for and investigates the issues of community members, police officers and departments across N.J.
“I’ve had some very humbling success in the last year, and I’ve got to keep going.” –Richard Rivera
His newborn keeps him awake nights, but “a lot of my work keeps me up, too,” he said. “I’ve had some very humbling success in the last year, and I’ve got to keep going.”
His success has not been easily won. Before this past year, he said, “things were very difficult.”
How it all began
Rivera is a fourth-generation West New Yorker and lived in the city for over 20 years.
“I know [the city] inside and out and blindfolded,” he said, which was one of the reasons he chose to become a police officer.
Rivera said all he needed to apply to the force was “to have a G.E.D., a pulse, and be 18 or older.” He spoke of the irony of being too young to take a drink, but old enough to take a life if necessary.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, and it should not be bestowed upon just anybody,” he said.
Rivera joined the force in 1990 at age 20. He quickly discovered the corrupt role organized crime played in his work environment. He knew he had to do something about it, but didn’t know what.
Normally when an officer wishes to make a complaint, he or she takes it to internal affairs. But he believed those officers were corrupt as well. The next level was the county prosecutor’s office, but he believed some members were involved in the racketeering.
At age 24, he took matters into his own hands and called the FBI.
“That’s the role of a leader,” he said. “To step up when nobody else wants to.”
The officers were accused of receiving payoffs to look the other way while gambling, loan sharking, and prostitution ran rampant in the city.
Rivera’s call and subsequent undercover investigation resulted in guilty pleas from 30 police officers – including the chief – to racketeering charges.
Rivera soon found that a leader’s path is not an easy one. He was fired from the department in 1996 based on what he called frivolous charges (which were later dismissed in litigation). It is extremely rare for a police officer to be fired; it only happens about 100 times per year statewide, he said.
The stigma of being a police whistleblower left Rivera blacklisted and out of work, he says.
He took on several of what he called “odd jobs.” He taught vocational criminal justice classes, volunteered for a plethora of local organizations, and consulted for the Newark branch of the FBI. He also sued the Police Department for his reinstatement.
The entire process – one which lasted 10 years – took its toll. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by psychiatrists from the state and the pension board, which forced him to retire on disability only one day after he was officially reinstated to the police force in 2004.
Characteristically, he used his misfortune to help others by becoming a peer counselor for fellow police officers with PTSD.
“I don’t mind talking about it because there are people who suffer privately,” he said. “This way I can encourage them to deal with it openly so they can heal.”
The Latino Leadership Alliance
Three years ago, through Rivera’s community involvement, he met the president of the LLANJ, Martin Perez, who quickly became his mentor. “I was able to rise through the ranks very quickly in this organization, and I’m very happy with the relationship I have,” he said.
The LLANJ is an “umbrella” organization under which smaller community groups, such as the Latino Police Officers Association and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, seek guidance and consultation.
Rivera chairs the Civil Rights Protection Project and addresses community needs related to police services. He informs residents how to interact positively with police officers and promulgates the alliance’s three mantras, “advocacy, leadership, and empowerment,” by educating citizens and officers. He currently mentors half a dozen people whom he hopes will then go on to mentor others.
Rivera meets and works with high-level staff, attorney generals, and county prosecutors to deal with complaints and decide on a course of action. “I’m very fortunate and humbled,” he said. “We’re getting a lot done in the process.”
Richard Rivera, L.L.C.
Because few departments welcome outsiders who want to change the way they run things, Rivera uses public data as evidence to inspire such change. He has single-handedly compiled the largest state database on internal affairs in New Jersey with Excel spreadsheets full of over 100,000 complaints filed against police departments and staff over a 10-year period.
He takes the attorney general’s annual report and compares it to the 21 statewide reports he requests, as well as to reports from hundreds of municipalities, and then compares them to each other to “see if they jibe.” Rivera said, “There are discrepancies every time.”
He said some departments are not keeping accurate track of information that is vital to departmental accountability, effective policing, reduction of liability and lawsuits, and to the reduction of police officer injury. And, he added, it saves taxpayers’ money.
Police departments and reporters come to Rivera for his collected data, but he said, “They should have it themselves. This is my eventual goal.”
What accounts for this systemic disorganization and misinformation? “It’s part oversight, part inexperience, and part lack of training,” Rivera said.
His quest “stems from the West New York case. Had it not been for that experience, I would have thought everything was just peachy-keen.”
Back to the beat?
Yet, Rivera is currently in litigation to return as an active member of the West New York police force. For him it is strictly a matter of duty and morality.
Rivera still collects a disability retirement pension even though his PTSD has been effectively treated, he says: “I can’t consciously accept disability benefits if I’m no longer disabled.”
He’s confident he will win the case and is eager to finish the police officer career he began over 20 years ago.
While the state Police and Firemen’s Retirement System has approved him for reinstatement, they deemed it should be a matter between Rivera and the Town of West New York — because when Rivera settled his civil suit in federal court and retired on disability in 2002, part of the settlement required that he never try to get his old job back.
As for the rest of his work, he says he’d be able to maintain some of it, and the rest he’d have to let go.
“My legacy will already be in place with the reforms I’ve worked so hard for,” he said, “and also through my mentoring.”
For more information on his latest successes (specifically in Freehold and New Brunswick), visit his websites at www.richardrivera.com and www.llanj.org.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/a>