Local police flout state rules to discourage public reporting of police misconduct, report finds
Lawrence Township Police Department was one of eight departments statewide that required people to swear to or certify information in complaints filed against officers. That violates a state directive meant to make it easier for the public to report policing concerns. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
Many police departments in New Jersey are violating a state attorney general directive by failing to post complaint forms online, or by posting them with language intended to discourage civilians from reporting misconduct, a new report by the Office of the State Comptroller found.
Investigators reviewed the websites of 100 randomly selected municipal police departments to gauge compliance with a 2019 directive from then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal meant to improve the community’s trust in police by making it easier for residents to report policing concerns.
They found 31% had no form posted online for people to report misconduct, and another 29% posted outdated forms or something other than the standardized complaint form the attorney general ordered all departments to use, according to the report.
Investigators also found:
- 80% failed to post forms in 11 languages, as the attorney general requires in a state where a third of residents speak a language other than English.
- 32% warned the public of potential consequences such as criminal prosecution and civil liability for false reporting and/or required a sworn statement. The attorney general’s policy explicitly prohibits both.
- 60% had no system for submitting complaints online, as the attorney general recommended.
- 26% requested personal identifying information — things like social security numbers, aliases, sex, race, age, and employer/school — beyond the limited identifiers the standardized forms request. Even the limited identifiers like name and address are optional and not required to initiate an investigation under Grewal’s order.
- Several required things that the Attorney General’s Office does not, such as a parent or guardian to accompany a minor making an internal affairs complaint.
Such practices either were intended to discourage complaints or could have a chilling effect, especially among people who want to remain anonymous, undocumented people, people who don’t speak English well or at all, and juveniles, according to the report.
Only five police departments were fully in compliance — Hoboken, Monroe Township in Gloucester County, Neptune, Oceanport, and Spring Lake.
“The law requires police departments to make it easy to report police misconduct, not put up barriers,” acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh said in a statement. “The website is, in effect, the front door. The public needs to be assured that the door is open to them if they want to file a complaint.”
The report comes more than three years after Grewal issued an initiative intended to improve police accountability and transparency. He gave the state’s 300-some police departments until August 2020 to comply with his orders standardizing the complaint process.
With only five of 100 police departments fully following all orders as of January, Walsh said, noncompliance is likely a statewide issue, undermining the attorney general’s overarching goal of improving public trust in police and impeding the efficacy of the police disciplinary process overall.
The Comptroller’s Office alerted police departments that were noncompliant as of Jan. 31, and since then, more than half updated or started updating their websites, according to the report.
The report recommended all police departments statewide review their websites to ensure they’re in full compliance. The attorney general and/or county prosecutors also should investigate to ensure all departments are in compliance, with rule-breakers ordered to comply, investigators also recommended.
Spokespeople for Attorney General Matt Platkin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the Grewal initiative, the office is supposed to annually report on officers fired, demoted, or suspended for five days or more for misconduct. In 2021, nearly 400 officers in New Jersey faced major discipline. The report for 2022 hasn’t yet been issued, a delay the office attributed to “vetting.”
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