Out of 100 N.J. police departments, 5 are following state mandates for police complaints

A new report from the state comptroller is signaling possible widespread issues in departments following mandates from the attorney general.

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New Jersey State Police cars parked on the side of the street.

File photo: New Jersey State Police cars parked on West State Street, Trenton, outside the capitol complex. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A new report from the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller has found possible statewide inconsistency when it comes to following updates to the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policies and Procedures. The policies outline what happens during a police misconduct investigation.

The report has found that only five out of 100 randomly selected departments throughout the state are in full compliance: Hoboken, Neptune, Oceanport, Monroe Township in Gloucester County, and Spring Lake.

Hoboken was the only department in North Jersey and Monroe Township was the only department in South Jersey to follow the updated directives. The remaining departments are in Central Jersey.

“When you see something that’s widespread, especially with a law that’s easily complied with, it does raise a lot of concerns,” said Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh.

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The review found that 20 departments were compliant with the basic requirement of providing the standardized form in all 11 required languages. This includes Bedminster, Collingswood, and Howell. But those departments along with 13 others still failed to follow the mandates.

“Our survey of 100 municipal police departments’ websites show that there is a lot of work to be done to comply with the law,” Walsh added. “The good news is that it’s easy to come into compliance.”

The Attorney General issued significant updates to the procedures and policies in 2019 that required departments to use a standardized form for police complaints and provide an information sheet describing the internal affairs process.

The form and information sheet must be made available in multiple languages on their websites and in their buildings. In 2020, a separate directive established the 11 languages the form must be available in.

At the bare minimum, departments could have provided a link to the Attorney General’s standardized complaint form. The review found that 80% of departments didn’t even do that.

“The department’s website is in effect the front door, and the public needs to feel that that door is open if they want to file a complaint,” said Walsh.

The inconsistencies were no surprise to Dr. Nusret Sahin, assistant professor of criminal justice at Stockton University. He said one of the assignments he gives to students is to summarize information found on police department websites. Items they are looking for include community policing activities, and the size of the department.

“When I see their presentations, I don’t see much on internal affairs or like filing a complaint in that assignment,” he said.

Additionally, language warning complainants about the legal consequences of false reporting was barred. But the report found that 32 departments, including Atlantic City, Vineland, and West Orange had warnings on their forms, information sheets, and/or websites of possible consequences of providing false information during an internal affairs investigation.

“Warnings ranged in severity from, ‘It is unlawful to provide information in this matter which you do not believe to be true,’ to requiring complainants to acknowledge that they would be prosecuted to the ‘fullest extent of the law’ and/or held civilly liable,” the report stated.

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Walsh said the language is prohibited because it could potentially scare off people with legitimate complaints.

“The policy is that we welcome complaints so that we can be as transparent as possible and to be as accountable as possible to ensure that misconduct is something that we take very seriously,” he said.

Hoboken’s police department was praised for hosting the complaint form and information sheet in all 11 languages on their website. Complainants had several ways to make a complaint, including anonymously. Neptune’s department included a feature on their website that translates links to the form and information sheet into the required language.

Three recommendations have been made by the comptroller’s office. It’s calling for all departments to review the information they make available to the public online. It also suggests that the Attorney General conduct a full compliance review of the departments, and investigate those that are not following the basic mandates.

“Policing is serious business and it’s important that police departments comply with the law,” Walsh said. “One of the things that we discussed in the report is that there also has to be a serious commitment to welcoming complaints, and some do that better than others.”

Before investigations are launched, Sahin said full reviews should be conducted to find out why departments are not in full compliance with the updated mandates.

“I would try to reach out to the agencies for their reasoning first,” he said, adding that he would give time for departments to address easy technical issues. “But if there’s something else, yeah, they definitely need to be investigated.”

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