UNION COUNTY — Information released by the American Civil Liberties Union a few weeks ago raised the ire of several top cops in Union County, and for good reason. Some of the data provided to LocalSource was incorrect.
Two local top cops took exception to a report that did not show them in the most favorable light when it came to the public’s ease of filing complaints about police officers. However, the ACLU admitted fault for how data was interpreted, and provided LocalSource with incorrect data.
Tuesday ACLU policy counsel Alexander Shalom, author of the report “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” explained that while the report itself was correct, additional information supplied by the ACLU involving local towns was incorrect.
“Someone in my office misread a spreadsheet and provided incorrect data to the reporter,” he said in a written statement that was also sent to Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow.
Apparently, the ACLU mistake involved how the five questions originally posed by volunteers conducting the survey to police departments were later interpreted and relayed to LocalSource.
The five questions included whether a complaint could be filed by telephone, anonymously or by a third party and if a juvenile could file a complaint without a parent present. The fifth question involved undocumented residents being able to file a complaint without fear immigration authorities would be contacted.
After the article appeared in LocalSource Feb. 21, Union Police Director Dan Zieser and Linden Acting Police Chief James Schulhafer questioned the ACLU about the results for their towns.
It appeared from the information obtained from the ACLU that Union County towns either were not well informed about the law, or the person the call was routed to by the dispatcher at police headquarters was not well informed.
In fact, according to the additional information initially provided by the ACLU, no local police department in Union County managed to answer all the questions correctly.
The ACLU has provided a corrected version of how local police departments actually fared, in addition to Union County Police and Kean University Police, which was not included initially.
Zieser called LocalSource after the article appeared, maintaining that township police telephone recordings did not even show a call like this came into headquarters.
In an attempt to find out whether a mistake has been made by the ACLU, Zieser emailed the communications director who put him in touch with Shalom.
Zieser said he questioned why Union was labeled as “unable to contact,” when after an investigation of his own, he was unable to locate any internal affairs recording that substantiated the ACLU’s claim. Shalom responded the same day by telephone, following up with an email to the police director.
“Thank you for reaching out about how Union Township performed in our recent audit of access to internal affairs. As I indicated on the phone, my callers did not attempt to call your department,” he said, adding that “it was nothing personal or scientific.
“We had a list with phone numbers of 497 of the departments throughout the state and rather than struggling to figure out which departments were not on the list, we simply worked off the existing list,” Shalom continued, adding that he was heartened that Zieser reached out, noting “your commitment to ensuring that citizens have access to the internal affairs function will serve both your department and the people you serve very well.”
In an interview again Monday, Zieser said he was perplexed by the information provided about Union because they do have an internal affairs officer.
“I couldn’t find any indication that we even received a call like that on any of our recordings,” the police director said, concerned that citizens would think this is how the Union Police Department handles calls about sensitive subjects such as complaints about police officers.
Even though it was apparent this was an ACLU error, Zieser decided to ensure that police supervisors were brought up to date about this situation and the law.
“I talked to my supervisors and that was when I reiterated how this should be handled. But I have to say, one call should not make or break a police department,” the police director said.
“We strive to be perfect but no one is perfect,” Zieser added, mentioning that even if the error originated at the ACLU, “perception is everything.”
Schulhafer and Linden Mayor Rich Gerbounka were equally concerned about how the additional information reflected on the city police department.
Schulhafer immediately drafted a letter to the ACLU, noting that while he had not read the report, he did read the LocalSource article.
Upon request the ACLU provided the acting chief with a recording of the telephone conversation that took place when the Linden Police department was contacted.
“Upon listening to the audio conversation, I must take exception to the conclusions that were drawn regarding the Linden Police Department,” he said, adding that the caller did not ask to speak with an internal affairs officer; they merely asked to speak “to someone about getting information about filing a complaint against a police officer.”
According to the original version of data the ACLU provided, Linden only answered the first question right, which focused on whether complaints could be made by phone. Then, the ACLU said, the officer told the volunteer they would have to fill out a form before any other information would be provided about the process. This, Schulhafer said, was wrong.
“The simple fact is that these questions were never asked,” the acting police chief informed Shalom in his letter.
“The officer did volunteer that a complaint could be filed online, in person or by telephone,” he added, pointing out that he asked the person if they could call back in 15 minutes and speak to a supervisor who could explain the procedure better and answer any other questions the caller might have on this matter.
Schulhafer said the Linden police Department has a very experienced internal affairs unit that entertains complaints against officers from all sources and in many different situations.
“While I recognize the value of your survey in pointing out the weaknesses in the the system, I feel that your report, as it relates to the Linden Police Department, is factually incorrect and misleading,” the acting chief told Shalom in his letter.
Shalom said that while the acting police chief did not feel the officer’s request that the volunteer call back in 15 minutes was an “unreasonable request,” it was inconsistent with the Attorney General’s Affairs and Policy and Procedure.
He pointed out that this stipulates that “all complaints about officer misconduct shall be accepted from all persons who wish to file a complaint regardless of the hour of the day or day of the week.”
“At no time should a complainant be told to return at a later date to file his report,” Shalom pointed out in his letter to Schulhafer.
The acting chief, while well aware of the law surrounding complaints by police officers, did feel that the caller misinterpreted the officer.
“The officer in no way tried to put off the caller,” he said, adding that there usually were two people in the radio room but one had left for a few minutes.
Schulhafer said he was looking at the entire incident as a learning tool, mentioning that he sent out a memo to all police department employees to let them know what our policy is in regard to this issue.
“I just didn’t want people to get the wrong idea,” the acting chief said.
Editor’s Note: A follow up article in next week’s LocalSource will detail more of the corrected data provided by the ACLU.