In the year since the ACLU of New Jersey sent a battery of grievances to the Department of Justice asking it to investigate the Newark Police Department, a few things have happened: the DOJ arrived, Police Director Garry McCarthy promptly left and, most recently, Director Samuel DeMaio and Chief Sheilah Coley have taken the helm of the department. Together, these facts hold promise that the city may at last enter a new phase of police accountability and reform.
Since May, the DOJ has gathered information on the ground from citizens and police officers. It has met with community groups and heard tragic testimony about the lives and families destroyed by the acts of abusive officers.
After it completes its investigation, the DOJ will have several options including issuing a letter citing the department's inadequacies and demanding reforms, suing the department, or proposing a consent decree that would establish a monitor to audit and review the department's progress over several years. The depth of problems in the Newark Police Department warrant the stable oversight provided by a monitor, who would ensure that all reforms can withstand the departure of the DOJ and any changes in city leadership.
Thus far, Director DeMaio has acted diligently to address concerns raised by the ACLU-NJ, implementing more reforms in a few weeks than his predecessor did in four years. DeMaio has halted the department's bewildering practice of referring citizens' Internal Affairs (IA) complaints back to the precinct responsible for their grievances, a change meant to prevent retaliation against the complainant and interference with the investigation. He has uploaded information about how to file a complaint with IA on the NPD website. And he introduced new standards for completing "use-of-force" forms to ensure the integrity of those records, which document when officers use force in an encounter.
He has also promised to install dashboard cameras in 50 cars this month and in all Newark cruisers by the end of the 2012. DeMaio and Chief Coley have expressed a strong commitment to training, as well as to using systems such as a discipline matrix to establish fair and consistent standards of punishment for officers. He has also said he will develop policies that reinforce officers' understanding of citizens' rights, such as the right to photograph or videotape police activity in public (the subject of a recent ACLU-NJ lawsuit against Newark).
These are critical steps forward, but improving the inner-workings of IA, a key to changing the culture and integrity of the Newark Police, will require DeMaio's promised reforms and more. Newark's 2010 IA statistics, just released this summer paint the picture:
• In 2008 and 2009, out of 261 serious complaints, IA sustained one, for an improper search.
• In 2010, the number of serious complaints received went up 18 percent from 2009. Out of 183 serious complaints, IA sustained two, one for excessive force and one for improper search.
• Combined, out of the 444 serious complaints in three years, three were sustained. Out of the 218 excessive force complaints, IA sustained only one.
The truth underlying these statistics is elusive, especially given the public's limited access to information about its operations or findings. What happens in IA, stays in IA. The fact that IA leadership has been a revolving door over the past several years, and therefore lacks consistency in leadership and practice, has only compounded the problems.
As the DOJ evaluates the inner workings and buried flaws in IA, it can investigate and address troubling protocols, such as the practice of failing to investigate complaints that are referred to Essex County for possible criminal charges, but not ultimately pursued by prosecutors (even if a case can't be prosecuted due to insufficient evidence or other facts, it still warrants an IA investigation and possible disciplinary action). If Newark has the benefit of an ongoing monitor, it could serve as an integrity check on IA operations ensuring that IA investigations are fair, thorough, timely and consistent.
We have no reason to doubt DeMaio's good intentions, or that he will follow through on promised reforms, but a department as entrenched with corruption as the Newark Police can't be reformed overnight. This has been shown in major police departments around the country -- not to mention the New Jersey State Police -- where DOJ monitors helped transform troubled departments, significantly improving and professionalizing their practices.
We can't predict the future of the department based on early discussions alone, when optimism and good will are high. We learned that lesson the hard way with Police Director McCarthy, who held conversations with us in good faith but ultimately delivered little. This time, we hope the DOJ will remain a vigilant partner who can prevent any backslide from the promising steps toward reform.