The Weehawken Police Department scored perfectly on a survey recently conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that anonymously tested the ability of law enforcement agencies throughout the state to answer basic questions about filing complaints against an officer.
Of the 14 local and specialized departments given the test in Hudson County, Weehawken was one of only four that scored perfectly, while nearly three quarters of the departments statewide failed. The police departments in West New York, Union City, and Jersey City also scored perfectly. Hoboken and North Bergen were among those who failed.
The survey was anonymously conducted by volunteers at the civil liberties organization, who called the departments without identifying themselves. They asked five questions: whether a complaint could be filed anonymously, over the telephone, by a third party, by a juvenile without parental consent, or by an undocumented immigrant without fear of immigration authorities being alerted.
The correct answer to all the questions, according to the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures outlined by the state Attorney General’s Office, is yes.
The volunteers who conducted the survey wrote a short account of their dealings with each department. In Weehawken’s case, ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom commented that the volunteers were highly satisfied with the responses.
“Based on the information we can get from an investigation, we try to make the best judgement call.” - Deputy Chief William McClellan
Weehawken Director of Public Safety Jeff Welz said that he wasn’t aware of the ACLU’s study, but was not surprised by the results.
“We’re very happy that the ACLU found we’re doing our jobs, but frankly I’m not surprised, I tend to think we have a very professional department,” he said.
Deputy Chief William McClellan, who is the ranking uniformed officer under Welz, a civilian, said that complaints made against Weehawken officers are investigated by the department’s two captains and himself. However, the entire force is trained to take any complaints that are submitted during off-hours, and the supervising officer on duty is tasked with forwarding on any complaints to McClellan or the captains.
“We keep our internal investigations to a few select, senior guys,” said Welz. “The guidelines don’t say we have to do that, but we’ve had great success with it.”
McClellan agreed that Weehawken’s system worked well.
“It takes a special kind of officer to work in internal affairs. You want to make sure it’s not someone with too many close friendships in the department, someone who’s got a higher ranking,” he said. “It would be a little strange to have a patrolman investigate a captain.”
The key is training
Shalom, who also conducted a similar study in 2009 and then worked with departments statewide to improve their internal affairs practices, said that he believed the underlying issue behind the majority of departments failing was simply a lack of training.
“A lot of departments have had to [contend] with significant cuts to funding, and as a result, personnel, so it’s not always a chief or ranking internal affairs officer that a caller is connected to,” he said. “This means that anyone who’s going to be answering phones has to be properly trained.”
McClellan and the two captains attended a weeklong course at the attorney general’s office on proper internal affairs protocols to become certified to investigate such complaints, but every officer on the force is well versed in the guidelines. McClellan explained that promotional examinations, which nearly every officer on the force is consistently studying for, cover internal affairs, so officers naturally learn the rules.
Welz also pointed out that Weehawken officers sometimes attend seminars on internal affairs protocols offered by the Attorney General’s Office or the Hudson County prosecutor.
High stakes, tough tasks
McClellan admitted that investigating a colleague can be a touchy subject, but said that he thinks all of Weehawken’s officers, including the captains who assist him in investigations, understand the importance of operating a transparent and open department.
Shalom said the access of information on how to file a complaint is important because of the already-existing negative perception surrounding internal affairs.
“You’re essentially talking about someone who already feels wronged asking a Police Department to investigate itself,” he said. “If the department can’t answer their questions or makes it difficult for the caller to understand them, then [the complainant] might feel like there’s no recourse.”
Facts and figures
McClellan could not provide specific figures at the time, but estimated that the department receives around 10 to 15 complaints each year, only a few of which turn out to be sustained.
Weehawken officers are subject to a wide variety of disciplinary actions, ranging from an administrative warning or citation to extended suspensions or, in the worst case scenario, termination. Welz discussed an instance that took place recently when an officer did fail to pass on a complaint to his or her supervisor.
“In that case, the complaint turned out to be totally legitimate, and we not only followed up on that but disciplined the officer who failed to report the complaint,” he said.
All local departments are required to alert the Attorney General’s Office of any suspensions over 10 days, and also submit quarterly and yearly internal affairs reports.
McClellan said that despite the difficulties that are inherent in internal affairs investigations, especially those based on an anonymous complaint, he thinks he and his captains do a good job of carrying out fair and swift judgments.
Welz said he believes that Weehawken's residents have a good relationship with the township’s police department. He pointed out that while residents have the option of filing a complaint against a Weehawken officer with the attorney general or the county prosecutor, it’s not something that happens very often.
“Very rarely to do we hear from another agency that a complaint’s been made against us,” he said. “Usually people come directly to us, which I think speaks highly of our process and our level of responsibility.”
Shalom said that he has spoken to officials from 40 departments since the ACLU’s report was released, explaining what their officers did wrong and how they could fix it.
“This is an issue on the move. The brass are recognizing that it’s a big problem with an easy solution,” he said. “If we were to test again in a few years, I’m confident the results would be more satisfactory.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org