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Good Cop, Bad Cop: How Infighting Is Costing New Jersey Taxpayers

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

WNYC

The day Cassandra Smith was promoted to captain in the Camden Police Department, she went outside to check out the unmarked car that would be hers. She had been excited to drive the car home — but found the inside covered with cigar ashes and needing a good cleaning. Then she found three bags of crack in the door pocket.

“This is big league. It’s hardball. Possession of cocaine is a criminal offense, I could have very well — not just ended up being terminated, but could have virtually ended up in jail,” Smith said.

Smith believes one of her colleagues on the Camden force planted the drugs in the car because he was angry a woman was going to be captain.

“Either you leave police services,” said Smith, who noted that she loved her job, “or you take a stand. And I took a stand.”

What ensued was a long legal battle that spanned about six years. The case is just one of hundreds in New Jersey where police officers sue their department or fellow cops. A year-long New Jersey Public Radio investigation has found that internal squabbles among police departments are costing more in settlement and legal costs than cases in which civilians sue the police. The numbers point to an ineffective internal affairs system  –  and a failure by the state to track the growing cost, which ultimately drives up local property taxes.

Between 2009 and 2012, the public paid over $49 million in legal fees, settlements and other costs relating to lawsuits involving the police in New Jersey. About $19.5 million went to cases where civilians sued — but taxpayers spent $29 million on lawsuits brought by police.

For Smith, the cocaine in her car was just the beginning. After a series of similar incidents, conflicts and changes in command at the top, she ended up suing for sexual harassment and discrimination. Her case was eventually settled —for $165,000. But people involved say it wasn’t as cut-and-dried as she says it was. There were accusations on both sides, which make it difficult to sort out the entire story. Given the large expenses lawsuits can bring, sometimes it can be cheaper, and easier, for both sides to settle.

Smith’s only alternative to a lawsuit would have been to go through internal affairs. But internal affairs answers to the chief of police. And Smith said her problem was with the chief. The Camden City police department where she worked has since been absorbed into the county police department, and says the city should have records on her case — but the city wouldn’t return NJPR’s calls.

 "Chiefs Gone Wild"

This is just one case of “chiefs gone wild,” said Antonio Hernandez, president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers.  Hernandez said chiefs often have unchecked power that isn’t being monitored by county prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office, even though they have the legal authority to do so.

Hernandez hears claims like Smith’s all the time, he said — of police superiors lacking management training, which leads to deplorable treatment of the personnel below them.

“I once had a lieutenant joke with me who said,  ‘You know, if internal affairs walks in here right now, tells you to dress in a pink tutu and to put on a dance, you’d better put it on, because if not, you’ll be fired,’” he said.

Officers who commit real infractions and excessive abuses should be punished, Hernandez said. But often it’s the internal affairs system that’s abused, because officers use it as a weapon for retaliation against other members of the force. As a result, innocent officers can be treated like criminals.

“When we’re talking about an officer who misplaces a piece of equipment getting suspended for 30 days, it’s a little excessive. Especially when the piece of equipment is an $8 Slim Jim,” he said.

Michael McCracken, an officer with the Bloomfield Police Department and a decorated Iraqi veteran, was accused of skipping work when, he said, he was serving in the National Guard.

The charges against McCracken were dismissed within just a few months. McCracken’s attorney Cathy Elston said that the detective who ran the internal affairs investigation — Jon Sierchio — had a list hanging in his office of officers he had a grudge against. Elston sent NJPR a picture of the list — and McCracken’s name is on it.

But Sierchio said the list is from an unrelated union dispute and he didn’t write it. Now he’s suing to clear his own name. Sierchio said there are too many lawsuits where police sue police; Elston said internal affairs needs more oversight.

“You can’t have somebody with a bias against an officer investigating an officer, that’s one of the requirements,” Elston said. “It has to be an objective and impartial investigation.”

Suits like McCracken’s cost the town a lot of money, she said. But “for what?” she asked. “Because you had people in internal affairs pursuing an investigation they had no business to even initiate, no less even charge these officers with. And it all could have been avoided, had they followed the guidelines.”

Using Internal Affairs as a Weapon

The costs from these lawsuits are typically covered by insurance. And like any insurance policy, the cost of premiums is related to how much is being paid out. Egg Harbor, a midsized town in Atlantic County, has paid out nine of these lawsuits over a four-year period, and its premiums have increased more than 70 percent.

Dave Grubb, executive director of the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, part of the government entity that insures New Jersey towns, says many of the cases are petty. “There was at least one case that we traced back to two individuals who couldn’t get along because of some school yard fights that they’d had probably in the third or fourth grade,” he said.

These cases, said Grubb, are wasting millions of dollars.

Part of the problem is the way police are hired and promoted, according to Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former captain in the Newark Police Department. Police departments can be run like kingdoms, where loyalty to superiors is valued over ability. He says that’s made worse by an out-of-date, draconian rule book.

“In the hands of an autocratic manager, that rulebook can become oppressive and I can use it anyway I see fit,” Shane said. “Because there’s a rule for everything, and I know that I’m going to be supported on the inside by my bosses. So I just then open up the page — and find you without your hat, your shoes aren’t shined, you’re three feet out of your sector and I’ll charge you for it. And so goes the wheel of internal justice in the police department,” he said.

Internal affairs can be used as a weapon, Shane said.

“The executive level of the organization wields the power over who gets investigated and who doesn't and how the investigation is going to play itself out,” he added.  “And many times, when an investigation doesn't find what someone wanted it to find, then the investigator is punished for not finding in favor of the organization.”

Tracking Costs — or Not

Another problem is that most police departments don’t pay settlement costs out of their own budgets. There is no financial pressure on those departments to take proactive measure to reduce the numbers of settlements and judgments” because they don’t pay the money out of their own budgets, said Joanna Schwartz, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies lawsuits involving police.

And no one in New Jersey government is tracking the costs of these cases, so there’s no pressure to fix the situation. When something goes wrong, police departments answer to their county prosecutors. The county prosecutor offices are overseen by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which writes the internal affairs guidelines for the state. A spokesperson said the attorney general’s office is concerned about this issue — but that its focus is only police conduct that leads to lawsuits from the public.

In a written statement, a spokesman for the Attorney General said lawsuits brought by police should be bumped back to the municipalities. But the insurers, not the municipalities themselves, oversee settlements for many towns. And some of the insurers don’t track the costs of the cases at all. Neither does the state comptrollers office.

UCLA’s Schwartz says the cases should be tracked so that the data could be used as an early warning system. But she said that most police departments don’t know how many lawsuits are open against an officer.

“The next incident, or the next interaction that that officer has with someone, could become that high-profile case,” Schwartz said. “So if you’re interested in resolving little problems before they become big problems, it’s very important to assess that information in a proactive way, instead of waiting for the next catastrophe.”

Watch a video version of Sally Herships’ report, with Chris Glorioso of News 4 New York:

Damiano Marchetti contributed to this report.

Editors:

Nancy Solomon

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Comments [14]

some things never change

I think that what most people on the outside of police work don't understand is the way certain officers are treated by the police administration. Being in the field for over 15 years I have seen good officers who have made mistakes on and off duty and have been willing to accept responsibility,but will receive much more severe discipline than officers who kiss up and won't accept blame because of how close of a relationship they have with the police administration. This may play a role in why some officers file lawsuits for differential treatment which often leads to civil and constitutional rights violations. Everyone should be held to the same standard in police work, and not singled out because of who you know. It seems to never change, and the township officials always believe whatever the Police Chief, Captain or Lieutenant says regardless if they are right or wrong. Hopefully one day it will change.

Jun. 24 2014 07:58 PM
Gael Lawlor from Wantage Twp

I live in Sussex County.
There are some towns with local departments, we have a County sheriff's department, and other areas are covered by the NJ State Police.
In addition , because we are fortunate enough to have state parks in our area, there are park officers; I don't know if they all carry guns, but some do. They need them. ( we have bears and other wildlife that may cause a danger, to say nothing of 2 legged human creatures who also may prove a threat since our parks are of course, roomy and with many secluded areas.
My current concern is that now in our local regional high school, there is a proposal to allow specially trained security officers to carry a gun.
I am not opposed to gun ownership; I have had a great deal of respect in the past for the NJ State police. I have known local police officers who have dealt the public with respect; courts have to look at the frivolous lawsuits and treat them as such.

Jun. 23 2014 06:58 PM
Peter from Mendham Township, NJ

Mendham Township finds itself in a similar bind according to a suit filed be a previous officer regarding his failed promotion and alleged departmental profiling for road stops of youthful drivers. Morris County Prosecutor has to complete the investigation regarding the allegation. Police Chief, 20 year department veteran, stands by his road safety enforcement policy as effectively enforcing state law and has broad community support. The rest evolves into a personnel policy dispute, elevated to a criminal allegation investigation, with taxpayers footing the bill ad infinitum. I trust sober heads will prevail and that a complete and timely investigation is completed.

http://newjerseyhills.com/observer-tribune/news/mendham-police-chief-denies-claims-of-illegal-profiling-welcomes-probe/article_c3ea944c-f644-11e3-8a18-001a4bcf887a.html?mode=jqm

Jun. 20 2014 08:35 PM
Dr. Moral from The OC, CA

If "We" don't call the corrupted out, we are the culture of it...

Jun. 20 2014 06:11 PM
Ed from hALEDON

To Joe and the Silent Majority,

Thinking you live in Haledon, following the Louie Mercuro saga from 2009 - the town (the taxpayer) has to pay - paying his ?309,000 legal fees - reinstatement as Police Chief - finally reinstated 2012 - state court judge ruled in his favor - town had no codified procedure and his other PENDING Federal lawsuit - civil rights ?legal fees yet determined - and the other ?lawsuits/settlements that have followed - i.e. Kilminister $450,000 payout and Chris LeMay's ? pending civil rights lawsuit in Federal Court - all STARTING from the Mayor's personal vendetta against Mercuro (2009) as written back then in the local papers - without any council involvement PERIOD. This is a TOWN WITHOUT PITY IT WOULD SEEM...........

Jun. 19 2014 04:37 PM
One of the people from Fair Lawn, NJ

I live in Fair Lawn and I think the law suits occur because the police is bored. We have too many police and too little crime. We should cut the police force in half.

Most of the time when you see them around, they are sitting in the cars behind PSE&G or Verizon trucks getting extra pay! There is a municipal rule requiring their presence. For no apparent reason.

We are afraid to speak up and for good reason. I have seen the police demonstrating outside our mayors' houses looking like they were ready to beat them up.

I understand that some lawyers are also very corrupt here. If you get a traffic ticket you cannot challenge it, they just laugh you out of court. You can negotiate a deal with the prosecutor only to find out it meant nothing to the judge.

And in Ridgewood, if you are a municipal employee who steals $400,000 from the parking meter cash you get a slap on the wrist and are asked to pay it back over a very long time.

Jun. 19 2014 02:20 PM
Liz from Higjland Park

This is what really excellent reporting looks like. Along with shedding light on an important story, you've got the foundations for a *great* book/movie.

Jun. 18 2014 09:21 PM
Santa Claus from North Pole

The actual cost of the settlements is but a fraction of the real/total costs.

Also, the story frame should also be applied to Fire Departments, the same kinds of corrosive systemic issues can be found there.

Consider the many more millions spent on legal fees defending the far far far larger number of cases that may not yield judgements for the plaintiffs.

Consider the demoralization of NJ first responders who operate in a climate of intimidation and fear.

Consider the possibility that the brightest, most honest, most competent, most principled, most courageous individuals wind up being the one's targeted by the established order.

Consider that the people who submit and simply "go along to get along" may not be able to deliver the highest quality of police and fire protection.

These jobs require gutsy, smart, honest, decent strong, independent people who are not easily cowed or intimidated by despotic regimes.

The dollar numbers as measured in this story are the smallest and least significant cost of the status quo.

You/someone should redo this story and get way below the surface you have scratched.

Jun. 18 2014 04:01 PM
sal

This municipality search bar on this article is inacurate. Many of these towns have paid settlements to Officers upwards of a half million or more in those years listed which are not showing here

Jun. 18 2014 01:25 PM
richard rivera

great job Sally. Such a project have never been undertaken. Hopefully this is a wake up call for New Jersey policing.

Jun. 18 2014 11:05 AM
Peter S. Mulshine from phillipsburg,nj

teachers & police depts in Nj have become royalty. Theirs are almost the only guaranteed jobs w Pensions. most cops come from families that had cops. The king is the local chief who enjoys almost total power to hire & fire.
NJ needs to change the laws so that a central authority appoints cops.When a position opens The Chief should have to accept who the state agency sends.
Police depts are public agencies .They should operate for OUR benefit. They should occasionally swear allegiance to Our Constitution again. Their pension system should be where the damages come from when they violate Americans civil rights.They should show better respect for the each other. Many of these drug charges start out as violations of civil rights in order to get evidence in the first place.prohibition needs to end.

Jun. 18 2014 10:56 AM
Doc

"UCLA’s Schwartz says the cases should be tracked so that the data could be used as an early warning system. But she said that most police departments don’t know how many lawsuits are open against an officer."

Obviously "UCLA’s Schwartz" is unfamiliar with the requirement in the New Jersey Attorney General's Internal Affairs policy (which by the way has the force of law).

See the NJ Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures document, specifically the "Risk Management" page 51.

Jun. 18 2014 09:49 AM

Look, everyone in NJ knows that the police in this state are ungoverned, unaccountable, and run wild over the citizenry, but what do you expect from the good-old-boy culture of NJ along with the total lack of concern and leadership at the top of the state for the last decade plus and now the Gov is one of them and it just keeps happening.

I know there are MANY dedicated and loyal police officers out there, it is a hard and stressful job. I have no idea what it is like to wonder if I might get shot every day I go to work - well except when I worked in Newark. It would be moronic to suggest otherwise, but when you see some of the stuff that happens around the state you start to just roll your eyes and maybe laugh at how the stereotypes of NJ are there for a reason.

We, as a nation, seem to forget the incredible powers we give to the police, and what they contribute to the society we want to create - both positive and negative.

Jun. 18 2014 09:28 AM
joe

Check out Haledon !!!!!

Jun. 17 2014 11:22 PM

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