UNION COUNTY — If an average citizen in Union County wanted to lodge a complaint against a local police officer over the phone … well … good luck.
In fact, the majority of those attempting to lodge a complaint against a police officer throughout the state would most likely encounter hostility, misinformation or other obstacles from local law enforcement employees, according to a report released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The report, called “The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs,” had ACLU-NJ volunteers call 497 police department employees to ask five specific questions that should have been answered with a “yes” response. Unfortunately, even though all of the police departments should have known the law, as well as the answers to the five questions, that was not the case.
Volunteers varied in age, sex and ethnic background and calls were recorded and supplemented with notes. Additionally, because callers were seeking information, they never suggested an actual incident occurred nor did they attempt to provide fictitious details about an alleged incident.
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, or illegal aliens, being able to file a complaint without fear immigration authorities would be alerted.
The ACLU-NJ report found the majority of police departments contacted, including those in Union County, either were not informed about the law, or felt they could intimidate complainants into dropping an issue they had with a police officer.
The report stressed that having an impartial complaint process allowing citizens to air grievances about police misconduct, coupled with fair investigations into those complaints, would go a long way to improving law enforcement throughout New Jersey.
“Too often we get complaints from citizens who feel that they are unable to get their grievance about an officer’s conduct addressed by the department that is best equipped to handle and respond to the complainant — the officers home department,” the report said.
The ACLU explained both police and the public benefit when individuals feel their complaints are both welcomed and addressed. However, the report said leadership must come from the top, and that is easier said than done.
The 2012 report actually picked up where a 2009 ACLU analysis left off. The results in 2012, though, remained as “disconcerting” as the 2009 report, although some improvements had been made in two counties. Union County, though, was not among them.
“Once again a majority of police departments provided inaccurate information in response to the most basic questions regarding individuals’ right to file complaints,” the ACLU indicated.
The report noted that close to 500 police departments statewide, or one in four, made it impossible for callers to reach anyone capable of providing answers to the five questions asked by ACLU callers.
One problem that kept cropping up was that many police departments have automated answering machines that make it very difficult to reach an actual person.
The study also mentioned that nearly three-quarters of police departments simply did not know the answer to the questions posed.
This average held true for Union County local police departments, and in addition five municipalities did not respond to the caller at all or was transferred to a recorded message.
New Jersey law requires that police departments accept complaints about police officers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as provide alternate methods of filing a complaint in person.
“When citizens are given the wrong information or are dissuaded from filing internal affairs complaints with a police department, it gives them no faith the same department will conduct thorough and fair investigations into allegations of officer misconduct,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Council Alexander Shalom, the primary author of the report.
Shalom pointed out that it is hard for citizens to have faith in police departments that cannot police themselves. According to the ACLU report, many of the ACLU callers said they would have given up had they been attempting to make a complaint themselves.
In one instance, the report noted, a police department employee stopped speaking to the caller and refused to answer basic questions unless the caller gave his name. Another advised the volunteer to get an attorney before registering a formal complaint against a police officer. Both of these responses were against the law.
Still another responded saying if the person making the complaint was an illegal alien they did not think he should “be running around making complaints.” This particular response, the ACLU-NJ report indicated, was particularly troubling given New Jersey’s high undocumented immigrant population, which ranks fifth in the nation with 550,000 undocumented immigrants.
The ACLU-NJ said while most police departments follow the rules, the few who do not can seriously undermine community confidence in law enforcement.
The ACLU pointed out that police departments must establish accessible citizen complaint procedures, train their personnel, impartially investigate each grievance and release the resulting information to the public.
In their report the ACLU noted that callers found many police department employees “often projected hostility, defensiveness or an eagerness to discourage a complainant.”
“These kind of obstacles undoubtedly discourage community members from lodging complaints against officers,” the report said.