Cities and towns across the state have spent more than $42 million over a decade to cover up deaths, physical abuses and sexual misconduct by bad cops. That is just one conclusion drawn from an extraordinary series called “Protecting the Shield“, a two-year-long investigation by journalists at the Asbury Park Press. Reporters Andrew Ford and Kala Kashmar join Correspondent Michael Hill.
Hill: Andrew and Kala, thank you very much for joining us. Your two-year investigation looked at some seven years with these police departments in New Jersey, $42.7 million paid out. You reviewed some 243 cases, and in some of those cases, seven sexual transgressions, 131 injuries and 19 people have died over the last seven years from your two-year investigation. But a lot of these settlements and so forth have not been disclosed. Why is that?
Ford: There’s sort of one or two ways that people can file a grievance if they feel that they have been wronged by police officers. They can file an IA [internal affairs] complaint and that goes through the sort of official channels, but large amounts of those documents remain a secret in the state of New Jersey. They also could file a lawsuit, and at that point towns frequently settle these cases for large amounts of taxpayer money. These settlements typically involve confidentiality clauses whereby the parties involved aren’t going to talk about it. While the settlements are public record, they are not always announced to the public.
Hill: Exactly. Let me ask you this Kala, a culture of secrecy from these police departments, as far as you can tell?
Kashmar: Yes, well I think one of the biggest problems is with lawsuits you have even attorneys who are representing these victims that have trouble getting past internal affairs records from these officers. Judges often seal the evidence so that the public can’t know a lot of details other than the basic facts of these cases.
Hill: Why is the state, why are local counties ill-equipped to handle some of this stuff? Because your reporting revealed that some of these county prosecutors, while they may receive reports for use of force, there’s not a big push to get these reports in most of the counties and to do something with the information. Is that right, Andrew?
Ford: I would say results vary. What one county does another county might not be doing. That’s maybe one of the more striking things about New Jersey is we’ve got so many different police departments here, while some might have very robust standards with police accountability, others might not be.
Hill: I want to ask you about this. You reported on Andrew Jaques in Atlantic City from 2001 to 2002. I am going to read what you wrote here. You wrote, “Internal affairs complaints accused Jaques of losing his temper in traffic stops and allegedly abusing his girlfriend, bludgeoning a bicyclist and choking a restrained man unconscious in the 2001 to 2002 period.” Yet he remained on the force for another decade or so?
Kashmar: Yes. That is correct. The details of those incidents wouldn’t have come out if one of the victims hadn’t filed the lawsuit, and there was a judicial decision where a federal judge actually detailed some of these internal affairs complaints and that’s actually pretty rare. We don’t see that a lot in court records.
Hill: I have to ask then, Andrew, who’s policing the police?
Ford: Well, that’s sort of hard to say. There is a lot of independence granted to the different departments in this state. County prosecutors have some degree of oversight, though we’ve gotten sort of mixed responses as to what exactly how much that is. And then there are, of course, guidelines put forth by the attorney general, but some of those allow for the discretion of chiefs. Let’s say for example, random drug testing. The attorney general’s guidelines say that departments may implement a policy for random drug testing and we found a lot of departments just simply haven’t done that.
Hill: Patrick Colligan, the president of the State Police Benevolent Association, told you guys in this report about the cameras and the importance of the cameras. Do you think they will make a difference, that they will perhaps prevent some of the activity that you uncovered in your reporting?
Kashmar: Well, I will say that it depends, it’s up to the integrity of the police department. If the police department reviews footage and actually makes an effort to make sure that their offices are behaving then yes, maybe it is effective. For example, in Bloomfield, I talked to Chief [Samuel] DeMaio and he has these review boards where they meet every month and go over their use of force reports and their accident reports and their police pursuits. And for all those complaints that are filed, they review the dash cam footage, the body camera footage, so their officers are less likely to misbehave because they know that their department is looking at that footage.
Hill: Your reporting kind of revealed that it’s difficult for police departments to “fire” a police officer. Why is that, Andrew?
Ford: I think Kala could actually speak to that a little more.
Kashmar: I think part of it is that there is so much recourse and there is such a fear of lawsuits.
Hill: An officer can really drag this out.
Kashmar: They can. They can appeal to the civil service commission if they are a member of a civil service commission and they can also file a lawsuit and the litigation can be costly. And the towns just would rather secretly settle than deal with the cost of litigation that can drag out for years and years and has dragged out.
Hill: Quickly, tell me some recommendations that you have in your report for fixing, obviously, what is wrong here.
Ford: Well, there is a range of different options in terms of fixes. Some would be easier, some would maybe be a little bit more difficult to bring about. For example, on that random drug testing, a single word changed to the attorney general guidelines could require that police officers in New Jersey were randomly drug tested.
Hill: From “may” to “must.”
Ford: Correct. From “may” to, maybe let’s say “shall,” that’s what the other guidelines read. There are some transparency issues we’re concerned with, where it would be helpful if these settlement agreements were announced to the public so that folks would know how their tax dollars are being spent and what their towns are agreeing to.
Hill: Kala Kashmar, Andrew Ford, thank you very much.