ACLU: Local police departments don't meet complaint guidelines

ACLU: Local police departments don't meet guidelines regarding complaints against officers

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Law enforcement officials say study is flawed

By LYNDSAY CAYETANA BOUCHAL

lbouchal@njherald.com

When it comes to providing civilians information on filing a complaint against a law enforcement officer, local police departments in Sussex County are least in the know, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.

The report, released Feb. 12, revealed that a person seeking information on how to file a complaint against a local officer over the phone will most likely encounter hostility, misinformation or other obstacles from local law enforcement employees.

Further, three quarters of municipal police departments failed to answer questions correctly or provide adequate access to answers.

Sussex County police departments, however, argued that the report is flawed, the results are misleading and defended that their officers know internal affairs and Attorney General guidelines.

"I'm more concerned at what the ACLU is getting at," said Lt. Thomas Kmetz, of the Hopatcong Police Department. "Is this a positive ploy or a negative ploy on their behalf? I know what our department does. I'm very confident in our officers."

The ACLU study recruited volunteers to call a total of 497 departments in the state, asking five questions -- if they could file a complaint against a law-enforcement official for "a friend;" if a complaint could be filed anonymously, over the phone, by a minor or a non-citizen.

Of the 11 municipal police departments randomly called in Sussex County, none responded correctly to all five questions, according to the report.

Sussex County was the only county where all departments failed the test.

"(Statewide,) there was some level of hostility, but more often it was ignorance -- they didn't know the rules," said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom. "When looking through Sussex County, there was no one trying to dissuade the complaint. It was simply (officers) who weren't informed on the rules and regulations and therefore gave wrong answers. There wasn't an overall tone of hostility in Sussex County."

The report concluded: "The results of this study are dismaying. There has been no significant improvement since the ACLU-NJ published its 2009 internal affairs report, which documented failure by many departments to adhere to (internal affairs) guidelines."

Fewer than 25 percent of the state's police departments consistently provided accurate information to those inquiring about their rights and the most basic internal affairs procedures, the report said.

The general principle of the state law insists that "all complaints of officer misconduct shall be accepted from all persons who wish to file a complaint regardless of the hour or day of the week," stipulating that every agency shall investigate anonymous complaints -- from third parties, juveniles and non-citizens.

Specific to Sussex County and other small counties, Shalom said there was more of a problem with poor access to answers in addition to false or inaccurate responses. Shalom said many volunteers who contacted Sussex County departments either dealt with an automated answering service, went through a phone tree or were transferred to the chief of police's voicemail.

"They should be able to file at any point," Shalom said. "In Sussex County, the bad access tended to be a volunteer being transferred from a live person to a voicemail."

Shalom added that volunteers questioned a mix of officers and dispatchers, leading Sgt. John-Paul Beebe, of Sparta Police, to believe that the report is inherently flawed.

"There's a huge difference, a dispatcher is not a trained police office; they dispatch," Beebe said. "What (the ACLU) is doing is completely flawed. It's unfair and does not give a remotely clear picture -- if there's even an issue."

Beebe and Kmetz said internal affairs accusations are taken very seriously at their departments; as a result, both departments employ an internal affairs officer to deal specifically with such issues should they arise.

Stanhope Police Chief Steven Pittiger reached out the ACLU to listen to his department's audio clip, discovering that the volunteer had in fact spoken with a Sparta dispatcher. Sparta dispatches for Ogdensburg, Byram, Franklin, Stanhope and its own township.

"Calling a busy dispatch center and quizzing a dispatcher is ridiculous," Beebe said.

Cumberland County was the only community where each police agency answered 100 percent of the questions correctly. In a distant second Salem County answered 57 percent of all questions correctly and Morris County answered 53 percent

correctly.

A majority of other police departments scored in the 10 to 30th percentile.

Sussex County received the lowest score of 0 and trailing not far behind was Camden County at 2.9 percent and Warren County with 9.1

percent.

"I think it's a training issue," Shalom said. "Some of the rules and regulations here are counter-intuitive (and) because they're counter-intuitive, there's an extra obligation on chiefs and internal affairs personnel to train people who answer the phone."

"If complainants are too scared to file a complaint, then there's no chance to have a good investigation," Shalom said. "You need to identify problematic behavior and correct it before it leads to serious violations of civil rights."

Shalom said nearly 40 officers have reached out to the ACLU asking how to improve their departments and train their officers since the report was published.

The ACLU-NJ has produced a roll-call training video to educate police departments about the best way to respond to internal affairs complaints; it also issued a quick reference guide for departments to keep by their phone to help employees respond properly to internal affairs inquiries as Shalom said that anyone who answers the phone for police should be trained.

Beebe, on the other hand, said dispatchers do not investigate internal affairs and therefore should not be trained in that area. Instead, their job is to connect them to the appropriate person to handle the call.

Shalom said 95 percent of all local police departments were contacted for the study. Those contacted in Sussex County were: Andover Township, Byram, Franklin, Hamburg, Hardyston, Hopat-cong, Newton, Ogdensburg, Sparta, Stanhope and Vernon.

"Sussex County varies from the state in a positive way," Shalom said. "There was no malfeasance, it was just (a lack of knowledge)."

Beebe responded, "These are all civilian dispatchers. You're asking people who don't have the training or the knowledge. If you want to speak to an officer, ask to speak with an officer.

"It was an ambush study."

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