Update: NJ Police Complaint System Broken

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


A New Jersey Public Radio investigation has found that the citizen complaint process at local police departments is riddled with problems, including retaliation and a lack of oversight from the state. This coincides with a report released on Feb. 12 by the ACLU that found local police departments don’t follow state rules when citizens report bad behavior by local cops. 

Consider the case of Terence Jones, a stay at home dad, who was driving home to New Jersey after dropping off his son in Philadelphia.  As he drove through Woolwich Township, Jones missed a turn and got lost in an industrial area.  

Then he passed a police car.  The cop’s headlights shined on him, so Jones says the officer could see he was black.  The officer pulled out and started following him – for five minutes. 

The patrol car, driven by officer Michael Schaeffer, pulled Jones over and things went downhill from there. Schaeffer wanted to know what Jones had been doing in an industrial area, when all the businesses were closed, at midnight.  The questioning went on for 20 minutes.

“If I had any drugs. You know, just your typical racist questions.”

The stop was caught on video by a camera on Schaeffer’s car.  A few days later, Jones filed a complaint against the officer.  And then, he got a phone call from the county prosecutor’s office. He was told he had two hours to turn himself in before he would be arrested.  He was being accused of filing a false complaint against the police, facing jail time of eighteen months. 

Jones didn’t go to jail. In the transcript of the hearing where Jones was found innocent, the judge found the police behavior appalling.

“On a night when it was negative nine degrees outside, according to the testimony or according to the video,” the judge said. “And to turn that complaint about the way he was stopped, the method of questioning, the search of his car. Learning into his car, which in and of itself is a search. To turn it from that into a complaint against Mr. Jones is unbelievable.”

According to New Jersey law, citizens are supposed to be protected from retaliation when they file a complaint on police behavior. But according to a report by the ACLU of New Jersey, the entire system for filing complaints against cops is broken.

The rules for filing complaints against police in New Jersey are what they should be, according to Alex Shalom, a lawyer and investigator with the ACLU. Citizens can file by phone, anonymously, or even through a third party. But the police, even if they want to help, don’t seem to know the rules, he said.

The ACLU called about five hundred police departments around the state and pretended to have questions about making a complaint. The recorded calls show, again and again, police employees giving blatantly wrong answers to the questions posed by the ACLU. One-tenth of all police departments, 51 of those surveyed, didn’t get any questions right. One caller to a Monmouth county police department was even told it was a busy day and to try to Google the answer. 

“No. No complaints can be taken over the phone – we can’t identify with whom we’re speaking,” said an officer at the Wyckoff Police Department.

“It’s got to be done in person.”

Then the caller asks if there’s any way to do it anonymously.

“No, an anonymous complaint against an officer – that’s – absolutely not, that would never happen in any jurisdiction ever,” the officer says.

Fewer than a quarter of police departments were able to answer all the ACLU’s questions correctly. So New Jersey’s Attorney General, Jeffrey Chiesa, is trying to fix the problem. He says his office is going to distribute laminated cards with the rules to police departments and create a mandatory training for employees who may find themselves fielding complaints.

But even if complaints are filed, there are still serious problems with the system.  Even though the Attorney General’s office receives yearly summaries of complaints from every police department in the state, the paperwork is largely ignored, according to Rich Rivera, a former cop who now works on improving the complaint process for the Soros Foundation.

Between 2005 and 2011, Rivera said, the number of in-custody deaths in New Jersey has more than doubled.  But even if the records were analyzed there wouldn’t be much data.

“It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know,” said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Date, time location, department, officer, what are contextual circumstances, where’s all the rich context of the incident, so we can uncover patterns and trends,” he said.

According to internal affairs summary reports obtained by New Jersey Public Radio through New Jersey’s Open Records act, more than a thousand complaints of excessive force were filed against police officers in New Jersey in 2011.

But what does that number really mean?

The records sent to the Attorney General don’t show whether there are three complaints against three different officers, or multiple problems with one. Shane says, unless this is corrected we can’t learn anything from the numbers.

“If you don't have data, you can't improve the practice. If you can't measure something, you can't improve it.  And we don't have the data.”

The attorney general’s office says it looks for red flags in the numbers, like repeat violations by a municipality.  On Feb. 14, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Criminal Justice said in an email that "in 2011, the Attorney General's policy was strengthened, and we have encouraged prosecutors to enhance their reporting requirements." But the spokesman added that he knew of no plan to expand the amount of data the AG's office receives. He said the AG has promised some reforms – like more training for police personnel to learn how to accept complaints.

Yet another problem with the citizen complaint process is how rarely a citizen is believed.  When civilians complain about police using excessive force, the officer is found guilty only three and a half percent of the time. BUT when an officer files a complaint about another officer he or she is found guilty about half the time.

“So if I’m a Captain and you’re a Sergeant and you say, you saw Bill without his hat on, I believe you. But, if Bill is a civilian and Bill says, “oh well, I saw this officer run through a red light,” prove it to me.”


Have you had trouble with New Jersey cops? Did you file a complaint? Have you sued and settled? Tell us about it. Email the author at

This story was produced with help from Damiano Marchetti.

This article was updated on Feb. 14 to include comments from a spokesman in the state's Division of Criminal Justice.


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Comments [21]


I have an idea, why not make the complaint system something run by civilians and make sure each of them is trained to only process complaints?

Feb. 27 2014 01:57 PM

And they wonder why people like to shoot them! No good spinless dogs.

Apr. 30 2013 08:12 PM
TJ Colatrella from Boiceville NY

I must again state that the reason New Jersey is so corrupt, is twofold as I learned the hard way..!

1. New Jersey media and papers will not publish corruption of police or allegations unless an indictment is handed down...

2. The New Jersey Federal Prosecutors Office in Newark especially is completely corrupt, and acts to maintain this corruption!

Feb. 14 2013 12:36 PM

Nick has come as close to this issue from what I've read so far. I've been involved with issue for some time, and on a personal level having gone through the IA process. Where do really start on this? It's Systemic through the whole Law Enforcement system in New Jersey. Some towns better than others, but the process is a SHAM, as it is entirely Internal,and subject to NO review. It's a Star Chamber(look that up yourself)for the management of the Police Dept AND the Political structure that for the most part that is being held for ransom by the Police Union's, which exert an undue amount of influence thru political contributions and lobbying.
The fix for this problem is a political one, because the Attorney General's Office sets guidelines for Internal Affairs in New Jersey. There is a manual
published by the AG outlining the minimal requirements for PD's to comply with. Read that before you have anymore to say about the process. Find a favorable State Senator and Assemblyman and get new legislation on the books. The AG comes under the Governor in NJ. Christie has subverted the whole process with the help of the "Cop Shop" PAC that helped him get elected.
There is an issue even more disturbing, and that is the PsyCOPathy that exist's in Law Enforcement Nationwide,not just here. There is a groupthink,
becoming "effective" psychopaths, or "secondary sociopaths." People who don't have the same emotional response to lying as you and I do. They view you as "them" and fellow cops as "us" Your not a Citizen, But a "Civilian"who just ahs something to hide. See if this doesn't fit any encounter with police: Lying is like breathing to the psychopath. From personal experience with psychopaths, I can relate to this. When caught in a lie and challenged, they make up new lies, and don't care if they're found out. As Hare states, "Lying, deceiving, and manipulation are natural
talents for psychopaths...When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they are seldom perplexed or embarrassed -- they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so that they appear to be consistent with the lie. The results are a series of contradictory statements and a thoroughly confused listener." Often, their behaviour serves to confuse and repress their victims, or to influence anyone who might listen to the psychopath's side of the story. Manipulation is the key to their conquests, and lying is one way they achieve this." This is a very brief Psychology description. It's the SYSTEM and PEOPLE who inhabit the system. You don't understand because you don't know it....

Feb. 13 2013 05:13 PM
Gus from New Jersey

It is difficult to discuss such issues when you work and know so many friends that are police officers but I guess as long as you can make it clear these incidents are not the norm and do not apply to every single police officer, then we can begin to isolate and address each case, hopefully. I was with the attorney for the State Legal Aid office in Paterson returning from dinner and he is black and I am hispanic. We were driving down Rte 4 toward Paterson and when we entered Elmwood Park NJ, we were stopped. There was nothing wrong with the car I was driving and there were no issues with my license but the officer pulled his gun and shined his flashlight at my rear view mirror and approached the car. We questioned why we were pulled over and the officer would not respond. After a few minutes he returned my license and registration but would not tell us why he pulled of over, he returned to his car and then sped off. We called the Elmwood Park Police Dept to complain and gave all the details but we could not give a name because none was given and the light was in our eyes, but nothing absolutely nothing was done by the Elmwood Park police department. My friend, who is an attorney was offended by this but later we found that there were many people who complained about a white police officer only pulling over minority drivers on that stretch of road. Very sad but this does still happen.

Feb. 13 2013 03:38 PM
TJ Colatrella from NY State

I was crippled by a drunk West Caldwell NJ police officer coming Felony drunk from a bachelors party after drinking for 5-6 hours on 10/10/88...It was all covered up by then The Top Federal Prosecutor for NJ Samuel A. Alito..who I wrote for help and never revealed to me that he too as did I lived in West Caddwell NJ! Alito used his power to kill the investigation the NJ AG was about to do, and this allowed the cops in Verona, Montclair, North Caldwell and West Caldwell who were friends of this drunk serial drinking and crashing cop to terrorize not just me but even my girl friend who did not live with me and never said a word and even her little children all due to Alito's complete disregard for the Law and Public Safety..!

It lasted for 10 years or more me the victim constantly terrorized and defrauded repeatedly! You see the corruption in NJ is from the top down the fish head there rots from the top down..!

We were destroyed by them, never really recovered, she was sexually assaulted for 3 or 4 hours they held her on a bogus rigged DUI charge, while she was alone in the North Caldwell Police station by one of that towns ranking officers who sent the rookie out on patrol to be alone with her..!

Feb. 13 2013 01:08 PM
Mad Scientess from New York

The corruption isn't just NJ and it isn't just the police it's the courts too. Women victims of domestic violence at the hands of law enforcement officers have their cases covered up by police and by the courts and there isn't a damn thing being done. When you call the attorney general's office they take all your information, tell you how wrong everything that happened was, and then never call you back. Who will do something about this?

Feb. 13 2013 11:55 AM
keith thomas from union county

One should come visit the traffic court nights at one of the
several towns in my area, any week in the year. it will be packed with
african and hispanic americans 80 to 90%. check out fanwood,scotch plains
and south plainfield, NJ

Feb. 13 2013 05:14 AM
Don Lemon

What a powerful story. Really incredible what society overlooks sometimes. I hope reporting like this bring around some change. Thank you.

Feb. 12 2013 11:20 PM
Liju from NYC

I heard the report on WNYC. The reporter played a portion of the recording from a police cruiser in which a male black was followed and stopped and he recieved a call from a prosecutor's office to turn himself in. The reporter did not mention the actual complaint this person filed. I think reading the actual complaint was very relevant but was left out of the report? It is a crime to make a false report

Feb. 12 2013 05:06 PM
ElaineD from Maplewood

Scary. Great reporting. Made me wary of leaving my name....

Feb. 12 2013 03:47 PM
Amy Farges from Little Ferry NJ

We has an incident involving traffic tickets in Little Ferry. At court we were railroaded into pleading guilty, without the opportunity to present a case or confront the issuing officer (whom we were told by the court would be at the hearing). And we watched as standard court procedures were broken time and again with each person's hearing. Additionally Little Ferry police refused to respond to a call to our business in a case of employee red-handed theft. Is there any way to build a police and judicial branch which tailor their procedures to rule of law?

Feb. 12 2013 01:50 PM
tom from nwnj

if you complain, it's tickets.
also if your "known" at an accident. they'll hustle you off so not breath test, questions or at least not give a ticket. they seem to have a ranking, resident/non-resident, town employee/non-town employee, etc.
a friends brother moved to pa to stop the harassment.
imagine a world where we all get police our self's.

Feb. 12 2013 01:31 PM

For at least the last 10 years now I've been advocating for every second of everything a police officer does while on duty in public to be recorded.

The technology for this has existed many years ago, and has only become lighter and cheaper and better in all ways since then. Cameras and memory and battery power that would allow continuos audio/visual recording devices that are light and sturdy and reasonably priced can be made now...and the costs will go down exponentially when they are mass produced, these can be made both cheaply and well. There's no good reason why there can't be one of these, or even two...covering fron and back, worn by all cops while on duty in public. These days the devices can even be combined with GPS reception to store location information. They can be made to be shock and water resistant to military specs to insure reliability in all environments.

The data would need to be uploaded at the end of each shift (In some mission critical situations the data could even be uploaded/streamed in real time using wireless networks). The result of such a systemic practice would be that an officers truthful testimony would be verified by hard evidence.

Note that I said truthful testimony. When such systems are utilized no cop in her/his right mind would lie intentionally, and any innocent errors in reporting could be discovered when there was a review of the data.

No law enforcement profesional who is intent on doing their job with integrity should object to the kind of solution I have described above. So why doesn't it exist now? Why isn't this idea being universally implemented as part of standard operating procedure in every police department in the USA now?

How many billons are shelled out in the settlements of lawsuits against cops? Wouldn't that money be better spent in preventing those incidents in the first place? How can we even measure the myriad costs and consequences of many millions of our people feeling fear, anxiety, hostility and distrust toward law enforcement?

Tragically, there is a culture of dishonesty and mutual cover up among too many members of the law enforcement community...and the cops who may wish to be 100% honest and aboveboard in all instances may fear finding themselves the victims of retaliation.

In my view, the ONLY reason what I've been suggesting for years has NOT become universal standard policy is that there is a perverse maleficent attraction to the status quo. Volumes could be written about he details of that dynamic but if you're informed, intelligent and honest with yourself what I'm saying is blatantly obvious.

We need to get to a point, in America, where a cop wears his camera with the same routine with which she wears her/his weapon. If you can carry a holster and a can wear a couple on ounces of electronic gear that will confirm with hard proof, all of your honest testimony in court. Now why would anyone object? Why?

Feb. 12 2013 09:43 AM

NJ Police have been migrating toward Storm Trooper status for 30 years. Racial, ethnic and sociological bias are rampant, uniforms are militaristic and threatening, and the police themselves look more like scary steroidal weightlifters than public servants. NYC cops are WAY more public-friendly.

Feb. 12 2013 09:40 AM

Broken system? Nope. Designed to work this way from inception.
So common as to be un- newsworthy.

Feb. 12 2013 09:00 AM

Fascinating story, but with one issue you might consider changing if the story is re-run this evening:

There's a reference to a police car "parked at a Wawa." This will paint a vivid picture to those west of NYC who are familiar with the chain. But I'm sure a lot of your listeners reacted with "parked at a what what?" Another word or two could help make that part of the story clear.


Feb. 12 2013 08:59 AM

Way too much Valley Girl 'vocal fry' from twerpy Herships. Unlistenable- T-U-R-N-O-F-F! CLICK! I'll be over at 'FAN where at least they don't "fry". Un- listen-able.

Feb. 12 2013 08:49 AM
Susan from lower Mahattan

Thank you, ACLU.

This strikes me as yet one more reflection of how our society has evolved into a place where those who are charged with serving the public instead attack it.

I'm thinking of Citizens United and the corrupt entanglement of business and politics. And also of how those in the Occupy movement have often been mistreated by the police and disparaged by the press.

Feb. 12 2013 08:40 AM

What a surprise - cops breaking the law. Tell us something we don't know.

Feb. 12 2013 08:21 AM
Andre from Lawrenceville

This is a nice start but you should include the major cities in all of your service area. The issue is statewide. WHYY should do the work in south Jersey. What can other civil society organizations bring to addressing this issue? Can the collected data be made available as a searchable Google map mashup? Layers might include police districts, voting districts, elected and appointed officials, average per capita income. The data is out there. It all needs to be brought to one place where it can be digested as a whole dysfunctional system.

Feb. 12 2013 07:16 AM

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