According to an ACLU survey of about 500 New Jersey police departments, many are ill-equipped to answer basic questions about filing a citizen complaint. Udi Ofer, the new Executive Director of ACLU-NJ, sat down with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider about the ACLU findings.
It’s only been three days since Ofer assumed his new post. Coming from the ACLU office in New York, Ofer gushed about New Jersey’s tradition of being at the forefront of civil liberties and civil rights issues.
“We were fighting for abortion rights before Roe v. Wade, we exposed racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike, and basically, New Jersey is known nationally as one of the most effective ACLU affiliates in the country,” said Ofer. “So it’s an unbelievable honor to be at the lead of the organization.”
The biggest difference between New York and New Jersey, he says, is demographic.
“In New York, we have one city of 8 and a half million people and the rest of the state of another 9, 9.5 million people. So here in New Jersey, it’s more dispersed, the largest city being Newark,” said Ofer. “It’s geography but the issues are the same.”
The findings from this past summer resulted from volunteers who called 497 police departments across the state to get answers to five questions regarding filing complaints with the internal affairs bureau regarding rogue police officers.
“There were questions about whether you could file a complaint by phone, whether you could do it anonymously or whether you could do it as a third party and then whether you could also do it as a juvenile without your parent and, finally, whether there are consequences for you to file as an undocumented immigrant,” he explained. “We were shocked that in a vast majority of cases, over 75 percent of cases, the people who we spoke to over the phone did not know the answer to all of these basic questions … they had no idea.”
Ofer attributes the deficiency to a lack of training and compliance because he says the existing law on answering those questions is actually “a good thing.”
“More than two decades ago, the attorney general of New Jersey issue[d] guidelines on how to provide New Jersey residents with access to internal affairs bureaus and what we learned is, that in 75 percent of cases, these guidelines are not being followed.”
When the ACLU raised the issue with Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, Ofer says Chiesa responded quickly. “I do want to commend Attorney General Chiesa cause he’s already taken some positive steps and he’s already announced that he’s going to create kind of a cheat sheet for local officers to know these basic rules.”
There was more encouraging news from numerous police departments. “We received communication from 34 police departments responding positively, thanking us for actually doing this kind of audit,” said Ofer.