Culture Shock in the Police Department: How the Newark Police Processed an Officer's Sexual Assault Allegation

In police departments, as in biology, a culture can decide the difference between something that saves your life and something that poisons you.

The culture of a police department determines the extent of misconduct, and this certainly applies to Newark, NJ. After decades of efforts to bring accountability to the long-troubled Newark Police Department, the ACLU of New Jersey last year documented widespread reports of police misconduct, including hundreds of allegations of false arrests, sexual assaults, excessive force and deaths in custody. That thick record of abuse helped bring in the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced in May that it would investigate the Newark Police.

Yet just tallying up the number of incidents fails to illustrate how significantly the attitudes of police brass can reinforce unethical behavior behind the precinct doors. The only way to see the corrosive effects of a dysfunctional culture is firsthand, in the day-to-day operations -- such as the ones carried out in this confidential tape recording the ACLU-NJ received.

In this 30-minute recording, a former police officer calls the police department to report that his wife, a current police officer, was sexually assaulted by another member of the force. As we hear the officer who took the complaint report the incident to supervisors, the tone of the conversations range from callous to cruel, but never concerned.

For example, when the husband is transferred to Lieutenant Pete Robles, who takes his complaint, the lieutenant receives the report with suspicion and asks whether the sexual assault was consensual. When the husband responds indignantly (what kind of sexual assault is consensual?) Lt. Robles explains that he's just "asking all the questions, bro."

Lt. Robles reports the complaint with amusement to Lt. Alberto from Internal Affairs, who responds saying, "Aw, you gotta be fucking kidding me." After expressing further disbelief with more profanity, Lt. Alberto concludes, "She's pregnant probably... a year later, haha," and then dismisses the issue with, "Yeah, I'm not stressin'."

Imagine hearing that sort of reaction -- laughing, joking, ridicule, vulgarity -- from the same people assigned to investigate the sexual assault you've just reported to the police. As heard in the recording, the officers spread their colleague's reported trauma as a piece of gossip, not a potentially a serious crime.

Near the end, a representative of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office complains about receiving the report at the start of Labor Day weekend. "They cannot wait until Tuesday or Wednesday?" she asks. Later, describing the incident, the employee says "And she says she was raped by someone?" Toward the end of the conversation she says, "That is unbelievable," while laughing.

The officers ultimately followed the correct procedure, notifying the appropriate offices of the complaint. But their tone betrays the skewed balance of power between law enforcement agents and complainants, who often face discouragement and debasement for reporting crimes against them.

If this is how police officers treat a criminal complaint coming from one of their own, what kind of treatment can the average citizen expect when they report abuse? The lack of professionalism heard on this recording demonstrates one of the reasons why we hope the Department of Justice investigation results in meaningful reform of the Newark Police Department. Only ongoing, reform-minded leadership can reverse the kind of culture this tape captures.