Officials hail New Jersey’s new website detailing police internal affairs complaints as a big step toward improving accountability, with criminal justice experts pointing out the state’s decision is not to the height of the kind of transparency sought by the reformers.
The new website launched on Wednesday, display internal affairs investigation data from New Jersey’s more than 500 police departments and give residents, activists and policymakers the most comprehensive insight yet into investigations that are typically hidden from the public eye.
Keith Taylor, assistant associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the site “truly impressive”.
“It is important and useful information that they provide. They make it possible to visualize information that was previously difficult to analyze. It’s an easy-to-understand interface,” Taylor said.
Prior to the website’s launch, internal affairs data had not been collected consistently, was kept on paper, and was only tracked by individual departments, activists, or county prosecutors.
For years, criminal justice reformers have called on police to be more transparent about how cops are investigated and disciplined, but they haven’t received enough support from them. lawmakers to open internal affairs files to public scrutiny.
Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin called the site “a new step towards greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement.”
Data reveals more than 12,000 active internal matter investigations launched in 2021, with allegations ranging from the use of excessive force, wrongful arrests, domestic violence and the largest category, ‘other rule violations’ , which can include drunk driving arrests.
About 55% of complaints are filed by civilians and about 42% come from an agency. Less than 2% are deposited anonymously.
The data also reveals the results of investigations, criminal decisions and discipline. It does not reveal the identities of the officers or many other specific details. The Office of the Attorney General publishes an annual report of major disciplinary measures taken against the 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 token gesture, like token reforms and transparency without the meat and whole potatoes that I think the communities most affected by police misconduct want,” Williams said. .
Officials say the database will be updated annually based on internal affairs reports. The attorney general’s office also said it would review the data to identify any red flags or patterns that might warrant an investigation.
“We continue to view this data as a means to improve internal affairs policies, procedures and oversight,” said Tom Eicher, who heads the attorney general’s office for public integrity and accountability.
What the site does – and does not reveal –
The new site allows people to review information about ongoing investigations, the type of complaint that was filed, the race and ethnicity of officers and complainants, resolution rate, average length of investigation by department and whether a complaint has been closed.
Closed investigations show the outcome of the investigation and whether it resulted in disciplinary action. Data includes surveys from 2014 to 2021, plus 2011.
Users can search for information in any of more than 500 police departments statewide and by county. Only 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 duration was 55 days. In Toms River, where 13 inquiries were filed, it was 114 days. And in Wildwood, 20 complaints were filed, with an average investigation time of 33 days. The longest open investigation was filed in Newark in June 2011.
In 2021, internal affairs complaints were upheld about 30% of the time, while in 21% of cases officers were cleared. About 17% of the files were closed administratively. Penns Grove Police Superintendent Richard Rivera said that could be a red flag.
“That means no investigation was done or they haven’t completed the investigation, so people looking at this data should ask themselves why didn’t they complete their investigation? Was there a stipulation or settlement agreement, or did the officer resign or did the witness withdraw his complaint?” Rivera said.
Rivera has previously worked with the FBI to expose widespread corruption among his colleagues in the Western New York Police Department.
The most common complaint to Internal Affairs – outside of the catch-all “other” category – was about an officer’s behavior. Excessive force accounted for around 5% of complaints and domestic violence 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 less than 5% were fired.
The data reveals a disparity between the results of citizen complaints and complaints initiated by the agency, Rivera noted. In 2021, about 30% of civil complaints resulted in the officer being exonerated, while nearly 60% of complaints filed by police superiors were upheld. The others are either unfounded, closed administratively, or not maintained.
“Why is it that more often than not, a supervisor is right and a citizen is wrong? Why is there such a huge disparity between the people we serve and our supervisors? ” he said.
Wilson praised the state agency for bringing together all the information that has been hidden from the public for years, but said there had to be more than “just statistical results.”
“It’s cool that we can go in and look at racial/ethnicity, break down comparisons, etc., but the numbers don’t tell us everything. It would be nice if there were updates in the future that would provide us with narrative and quantitative data to give us color behind the numbers,” he said.
Civic engagement and responsibility
Taylor, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said other states should consider the New Jersey site as a model. He said it would help people understand their police service’s standards for corruption and discipline.
“It’s almost like when you walk into a restaurant and see a note from the health department in the window. You have some kind of trust to walk into that restaurant or deal with that agency,” he said.
He agreed that more data on specific complaints would be helpful, but with thousands of cases and the need to delete information, it could take a long time.
Rivera also said he would like to see more historical data to compare trends across police departments, but noted that would need to be validated by each department, which would be a significant task.
“He doesn’t have the full escape, but that’s 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 don’t are not disciplined,” he said.
As more people begin to dig deeper into the data on the site, Wilson hopes it will boost civic engagement and push citizens into local council meetings. Although the data provides insight into information that has never been publicly available before, it is difficult to navigate and can be daunting to understand, he added.
“I believe people are very, very happy to see this in play, but I think ordinary individuals will see it and come away with a lot to be desired,” he said.
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