Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Disturbing Admission by Camden, NJ Police Dept.

This post is far from my usual subject matter, but I think the events described in it are worth publicizing so others might do something with it.

While doing research this morning for a case I'm working on, I stumbled across a recent decision out of the US District Court for New Jersey. The case, Monaco v. City of Camden, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10455 (D. N.J. Feb. 13, 2008) contains a revealing insight into the way in which internal affairs investigations are conducted when it comes to allegations of police brutality and harassment. The case itself stems from a fight in 2002 outside of a concert to which police responded. The plaintiff in the case was not involved in the fight, but was nonetheless allegedly brought to the ground, beaten, and arrested, suffering numerous injuries in the process. He was then allegedly detained for two hours before being interrogated. During the interrogation, he was allegedly accused of drinking in public (of all things), ordered to confess to this "crime," and then threatened with additional charges should he choose to fight the public drinking charge in court. He eventually pled "not guilty" to the charge, and the Department refused to provide him with information substantiating the charge upon his request; as a result, the charge was eventually dismissed for lack of prosecution. The plaintiff ultimately filed suit against the City (and the relevant, but mostly unnamed, police officers) for civil rights violations and for malicious prosecution. After discovery, the City and police officers moved for summary judgment, which the court wound up denying in part and granting in part (the reasons for which are unimportant for purposes of this post).

The decision on the summary judgment motion contained the following paragraphs, which suggest some deep-seated problems with the way in which complaints against the police are handled.

Shortly after the incident at the [concert] occurred, Plaintiff and Police Department Captain Joseph Richardson were each interviewed on television by a news reporter about the fight and the police officers' response. Captain Richardson stated in the interview that if Plaintiff submitted a complaint about the events of May 31, 2002, the Police Department would investigate the matter.

It appears that the Police Department did not investigate Plaintiff's allegation that he had been the victim of police misconduct until February 2005, after Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this action. Detective Xemaril Cruz, who works in the Police Department's Internal Affairs division, was assigned to investigate Plaintiff's allegations. As part of her investigation, Detective Cruz conducted what she referred to during her deposition as "interview[s]" of the police officers who might have come into contact with Plaintiff on May 31, 2002. Detective Cruz did not ask the officers any questions at these interviews, but instead simply informed them that an Internal Affairs investigation was underway and that they were required to submit reports to her summarizing their recollections of the [concert] incident. Based on the information she received in these reports, Detective Cruz determined that Plaintiff's allegations had not been sustained, which, as she explained during her deposition testimony, meant that "there was an incident and there was an assault involved, but it could not be determined if it was the officers who . . . committed the assault . . . due to the large fight that took place." Detective Cruz did not speak with the officers in order to clarify these indeterminate findings or clarify the contents of their reports. When asked during her deposition why she did not speak with the officers and relied exclusively upon the contents of their reports, Detective Cruz replied that "that's the way that we do it."

(my emphasis).

As disturbing as I find the fact that a police department would wait three years to investigate a complaint, only after that complaint was the basis for a lawsuit, and that the "investigation" would be no more than a request for the officers to provide their own written reports of the incident, it is the last sentence that is most disturbing. That sentence makes clear that the standard practice of the Camden Police Department (and most likely many other departments) for investigating complaints is to merely give the officers involved a pen and paper to describe the events at their leisure. No questioning each officer individually, no requiring the officers to answer questions on the spot, just a report that the officers could work on at their leisure and on which they could easily collaborate.