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Racial profiling fallout: Bias complaints kept secret after NJ police chief loses job

Wyckoff police cruiser
A Wyckoff police cruiser (Wyckoff Police)

WYCKOFF — The Bergen County police department whose chief was demoted this month after prosecutors found that he “explicitly” violated state rules against racial profiling is refusing to release discrimination complaints filed against its officers.

Former Police Chief Benjamin Fox was suspended in March after Bergen County Acting Prosecutor Gurbir Grewel launched an investigation into a an email Fox had sent his officers in 2014.

Last week — after Grewel’s office found that Fox in fact violated the racial profiling policy, but did not charge Fox with any crime — township officials demoted Fox. The prosecutor said investigators did not uncover any substantiated instances of racial profiling by the department.

Fox’s email had lamented “the national rhetoric about police abuse and racial profiling” and supported stopping black people in white neighborhoods because “black gang members from Teaneck commit burglaries in Wyckoff.”

The internal email was obtained by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and shared with the prosecutor.

WYCKOFF

• POPULATION: 17,000 — 18th largest in Bergen County.
• DEMOGRAPHICS:
— 94% white
— 4% Asian
— 4% Hispanic
— 0.5% black

• POLICE FORCE: 23 officers
• CRIME IN 2015:
— Rape: 1
— Robbery: 2
— Assault: 31
— Burglary: 13
— Theft: 59
— Car thefts: 2

Shortly after the investigation was announced, New Jersey 101.5 asked the Wyckoff Police Department to release records of discrimination complaints recently filed by citizens.

Lt. Charles Van Dyk, who was made officer in charge of the department after Fox was suspended and the department was placed under the prosecutor’s supervision, denied New Jersey 101.5’s initial written request for any documents detailing allegations of bias against Wyckoff officers.

On Monday, Van Dyk again denied the request and declined to elaborate the reasons for his denial. Township officials did not return calls for comment.

Civil liberties and police reform advocates who spoke to New Jersey 101.5 said there is “no reason” why the embattled department should keep the public in the dark about these complaints.

In New Jersey, complaints against police are investigated by fellow officers in a department. Records of internal affairs investigations are supposed to be confidential. But state attorney general guidelines say a police department’s executive officer “may authorize access to a particular file or record for good cause.”

5 bias complaints in 4 years

New Jersey 101.5 analyzed four years of internal affairs investigation tallies that the department filed with the prosecutor’s office and found that Wykcoff received three bias complaints in 2015, the year after Fox sent his email. The department also investigated two bias complaints in 2013, but none in 2012 and 2014.

The department’s own investigations concluded that officers did nothing wrong.

During that four-year period, Wyckoff was among 53 out of 73 agencies in the county that investigated bias complaints against their officers, according to the internal affairs summaries, which the prosecutor’s office provided in response to a request under the state Open Public Records Act.

"These are public complaints. It’s a public office. There is no reason why the public shouldn’t take a look at that."

The summaries, however, do not identify the accused officers or provide any detail whatsoever into the allegations or the investigations, as the complaints to which New Jersey 101.5 was denied access could.

Richard Rivera, a former police officer who works as a law enforcement consultant and researcher with the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, said that departments could redact records if they are worried about identifying officers in a complaint that turned out to be unfounded.

“There’s no reason these files can’t be released with redactions,” he said. “The public should know and feel that the process was fair and thorough — and many times they are not.”

Ari Rosmarin, the public policy director for the ACLU-NJ, said Wyckoff is “a department in crisis” and releasing the complaints to the public would help toward rebuilding community trust.

“These are public complaints. It’s a public office. There is no reason why the public shouldn’t take a look at that,” Rosmarin said in an interview before prosecutors had concluded the investigation.

"The internal affairs process in New Jersey is basically a veil of secrecy to shield officers from accountability."

Rosmarin said departments rarely release investigation records, and when they do it’s usually when it makes a police officer look good.

“If police departments are serious about building the public trust and having the support of the community, not fighting transparency is a great way to start,” he said.

98 percent of complaints dismissed

Police reform advocates in New Jersey say departments’ reluctance to share more information stymies the public’s ability to hold these agencies accountable.

Rivera says police officers cannot be trusted to investigate their own colleagues when they’re accused of bias, excessive force or other transgressions. Lawmakers in Trenton have suggested making the state Attorney General’s Office responsible for investigating complaints against local police, a proposal that has not been well received by that office or many police chiefs.

“The internal affairs process in New Jersey is basically a veil of secrecy to shield officers from accountability,” Rivera said. “It’s been 11 years since the statewide directive on biased policing was implemented and not a single officer has been charged with violating a person’s civil rights criminally. Not a single one.”

From 2012 to 2015 in Bergen County, 73 agencies — including the Sheriff’s Office and the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police — investigated 244 bias complaints against officers. Internal affairs divisions found fault with officers in just five of those cases, according to a review by New Jersey 101.5.

The departments that disciplined officers as a result of a bias complaint were Westwood in 2012, Wood-Ridge in 2013, New Milford in 2013, and River Edge and Tenafly in 2015.

The ACLU-NJ last week called on Wyckoff to fire Fox, whose attorneys have vowed to pursue legal action against the demotion.

As a result of the investigation, the state Attorney General’s Office has required the police department to implement anti-bias and de-escalation training.

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