You’ve been heard
JCPD receives high marks for handling complaint procedures against cops
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Mar 31, 2013 | 4096 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
According to the ACLU-NJ, “fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”
According to the ACLU-NJ, “fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”
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While crime, public safety, and appropriate police staffing levels have been in the headlines for the past year, the Jersey City Police Department has quietly continued to receive accolades in another important area. According to a report issued last month by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Jersey City is among a handful of New Jersey municipalities that complies with state law regarding internal affairs complaints.

The report, titled “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” surveyed how regular people are treated when they call local police departments and inquire about how to make a complaint against an officer.

The organization called 497 municipalities across the state of New Jersey, including all 14 municipalities in Hudson County. Among the 14 Hudson County cities, the ACLU-NJ found that only four – including the Jersey City Police Department – provided accurate, complete information to callers who inquired about internal affairs complaint procedures. Five cities gave inaccurate or incomplete information to callers. Another five municipalities were found to have what the ACLU-NJ considered “bad access,” meaning they weren’t able to supply information regarding how to file a complaint, for one reason or another.

The volunteers who conducted the survey wrote a short account of their interaction with each department. According to ACLU-NJ staff attorney Alexander Shalom, who supervised the study, in the case of Jersey City and other departments that scored well the volunteers were highly satisfied with the responses.

“In those cases, our volunteers were pleased,” Shalom said. “The officers they spoke to were highly responsive and well-informed.”

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The purpose of the most recent report was to see how much progress has been made since 2009.

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Without seeing the report, Deputy Chief Peter Nalbach, who worked in the department’s Internal Affairs Division from 1985 to 2001, said he was not surprised by the findings.

“I’ve trained people in internal affairs over the years. If anyone who comes into any police facility with a complaint, the supervisor [on duty] can take the complaint,” said Nalbach. “If there isn’t a supervisor there, they can call one. The can also call directly to our Internal Affairs Division. So, that’s been our mantra here for decades.”

ACLU: Most ‘police agencies violate state law’

“The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs” retraces the path of an earlier, similar survey done by the ACLU-NJ in 2009. That survey, whose results were also published in a report, found that a “majority of [police] departments failed to follow…[state] law and the guidelines regarding individuals’ rights to file internal affairs complaints.”

These rights were established on a statewide level in the 1990s.

In 1991, according to the ACLU-NJ, the state attorney general issued a set of guidelines, known officially as the Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures, to assist local police departments. These guidelines were updated in 1992 and then again in 2000. They were later made into a state law.

Among other things, the law requires all law enforcement agencies in New Jersey, regardless of size, to adopt internal affairs complaint procedures that are consistent with the attorney general’s guidelines. The law also specifically addresses whether complaints can be made by noncitizens, juveniles, third party witnesses, over the phone, or anonymously.

After the ACLU-NJ concluded in 2009 that “the majority of police agencies violate the law by limiting the time, place, and, and manner in which citizens can file complaints,” the organization began working with law enforcement to improve internal affairs procedures.

The purpose of the most recent report was to see how much progress has been made since 2009.

According to the organization, little progress has been made.

“The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” concludes, “There has been no significant improvement since the ACLU-NJ published its 2009 [internal affairs] report. Once again, fewer than 25 percent of New Jersey’s police departments consistently provided accurate information to complaints regarding their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures.”

Methodology

Using a team of volunteers, the ACLU-NJ had people call 497 police departments to ask their procedure on how to file an internal affairs complaint against an officer.

“The volunteers were not allowed to say, ‘I have an internal affairs complaint to file,’ because that would be filing a false complaint,” Shalom explained. “So, all they were allowed to do was ask questions about how to do so.”

The volunteers made their calls in June and July of last year.

The volunteers made their calls from the ACLU-NJ offices during normal weekday business hours. They did not identify themselves as ACLU volunteers.

During their calls, the volunteers were trained to ask five questions. The volunteers asked: Whether a complaint against an officer can be filed anonymously; whether a complaint can be filed by a juvenile without the participation of a parent or guardian; whether an undocumented immigrant can make a complaint without being reported to immigration officials; whether a complaint can be filed by a third party; and whether a complaint can be filed over the phone.

“The correct answers are, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes,’” said Shalom.

Four Hudson County municipalities – Jersey City, Weehawken, Union City, and West New York – provided what the ACLU called “good access” to volunteers when they called. This means the volunteers received the correct answers to these five questions.

Departments that answered one or more questions incorrectly were given the “bad answer” label in the ACLU-NJ report.

Departments that seemed reticent to help the callers, or that couldn’t answer the volunteers’ questions, were deemed to have “bad access” by the organization.

‘Right way to do things’

While it is important for every law enforcement agency to have clear complaint procedures that are rigorously enforced, such standards are particularly important in large urban areas with diverse populations.

Complaint procedures which are adhered to can help mitigate rampant allegations of police brutality and misconduct and can improve public perceptions of the police.

“We had a study done on us four or five years ago by an outside company that evaluated our procedures and they said we actually take some complaints that we really don’t have to take,” said Nalbach. “But our policy is, that should be determined by an internal affairs investigation or a court. That isn’t for us to decide [when the complaint is first made]. We take complaints over the phone. We take complaints anonymously. And we investigate the complaint as far as we can. That’s the right way to do things and that’s our policy. And it’s been that way for decades.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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