The site gives members of the public the most comprehensive peek yet at normally secret internal affairs cases. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres | Governor's Office)
Officials are lauding New Jersey’s newly launched website detailing police internal affairs complaints as a big step toward improving accountability, with criminal justice experts stressing the state’s move falls short of the kind of transparency reformers have sought.
The new website launched Wednesday, displaying data of internal affairs investigations from New Jersey’s 500-plus police departments and giving residents, activists, and policymakers the most comprehensive peek yet into investigations that are typically hidden from the public eye.
Keith Taylor, adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the site “really impressive.”
“This is important, useful information they are providing. They give a way to visualize the information that was previously hard to analyze. It’s an easy-to-understand interface,” Taylor said.
Prior to the website’s launch, internal affairs data had not been collected in a consistent way, was kept on paper, and was tracked only by individual departments, activists, or county prosecutors.
For years, criminal justice reformers have called on police to be more transparent with how cops are investigated and disciplined, but they have not received enough support from legislators to open up internal affairs records for public review.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin called the site “another step toward greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement.”
The data reveals over 12,000 active internal affairs investigations launched in 2021, with allegations ranging from uses of excessive force, improper arrests, domestic violence, and the largest category, “other rule violations,” which can include drunken driving arrests.
Roughly 55% of complaints are made by civilians, and about 42% originate from an agency. Less than 2% are filed anonymously.
The data also reveals investigation outcomes, criminal dispositions, and discipline. It does not reveal officers’ identities or many other specific details. The Attorney General’s Office releases an annual report of major disciplinary actions taken against cops separately under a 2020 directive.
The lack of identifying details is a problem, said Jason Williams, associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University.
“We run the risk of this becoming a symbolic gesture, like symbolic reforms and transparency without the full meat and potatoes that I think communities most affected by police malpractice want,” Williams said.
Officials say the database will be updated annually from internal affairs reports. The Attorney General’s Office also said it would be reviewing the data to identify any red flags or patterns that might warrant an investigation.
“We are always looking at this data as a way to improve internal affairs policies, procedures, and oversight,” said Tom Eicher, who runs the attorney general’s office of public integrity and accountability.
The new site allows people to review information on active investigations, the kind of complaint that was filed, the race and ethnicity of officers and complainants, the clearance rate, the average length of investigation per department, and whether a complaint was closed.
Closed investigations show the investigation outcome and whether it resulted in discipline. The data includes investigations from 2014 to 2021, plus 2011.
Users can search for information from any of the state’s 500-plus police departments and by county. Just 35 police departments reported no internal affairs investigations in 2021.
Statewide in 2021, the average length of an internal affairs investigation was 76 days. In Jersey City, with 125 investigations, the average length was 55 days. In Toms River, where 13 investigations were filed, it was 114 days. And in Wildwood, 20 complaints were filed, with an average investigation length of 33 days. The longest open investigation was filed in Newark in June 2011.
In 2021, internal affairs complaints were sustained about 30% of the time, while in 21% of cases, officers were exonerated. About 17% of cases were administratively closed. Penns Grove Police Director Richard Rivera said that could be a red flag.
“That means no investigation was done or they didn’t finish the investigation, so people looking at this data should ask, why didn’t they finish their investigation? Was there some stipulation or some settlement agreement, or did the officer resign or did the witness pull their complaint?” said Rivera.
Rivera once worked with the FBI to expose widespread corruption among his colleagues in the West New York Police Department.
The most common complaint made to internal affairs — outside of the catch-all “other” category — was about an officer’s demeanor. Excessive force accounted for about 5% of complaints, and domestic violence for 1%.
A written or oral reprimand or warning was the most common form of discipline. More than 16% of officers were suspended without pay, and fewer than 5% were discharged from employment.
The data reveals a disparity between outcomes of citizen complaints versus agency-initiated complaints, Rivera noted. In 2021, about 30% of civilian complaints resulted in the officer’s exoneration, while nearly 60% of complaints initiated by police superiors were sustained. The rest are either unfounded, administratively closed, or not sustained.
“Why is it that more times than not, a supervisor is right and a citizen was wrong? Why is there such a huge disparity among the people that we serve and our supervisors?” he said.
Wilson commended the state agency for mounting all the information that has been hidden from the public for years but said there needs to be more than “just statistical outputs.”
“It’s cool that we can go in and look at the racial/ethnic background, break down comparisons, so forth, but the numbers don’t tell us the whole picture. It would be good if there were some updates in the future that provide us some narrative and quantitative data to give us color behind the numbers,” he said.
Civic engagement and accountability
Taylor, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice assistant professor, said other states should look at New Jersey’s site as a model. He said it will help people understand how the standards their police agencies have when it comes to corruption and discipline.
“It’s almost like when you go into a restaurant and see a letter grade in the window from the department of health. You have some sort of confidence about going into this restaurant, or dealing with this agency,” he said.
He agreed that more data about the specific complaints would be helpful, but with thousands of cases and the need to redact information, it could take a long time.
Rivera also said he’d like to see more historical data to compare trends in police departments but noted it would have to be validated by each department, which would be a big task.
“It doesn’t have the full breakout, but this is just a starting point. We need to start asking more questions, we need to understand why officers are being disciplined, and we also need to see why officers are not being disciplined,” he said.
As more people start to delve into data on the site, Wilson hopes it bolsters civic engagement and pushes citizens to local council meetings. While the data gives a glimpse of information that’s never been available to the public before, it’s clunky to go through and can be daunting to understand, he added.
“I do believe that people are very, very happy to see this in play, but I think everyday individuals will see this and leave with much left to be desired,” he said.
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