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.