The results of a Justice Department (DOJ) investigation into the Newark Police Department show the police force engages in a routine pattern of unconstitutional policing. Police illegally stop thousands of pedestrians without articulating any “reasonable suspicion” for stopping them. They unconstitutionally arrest people, and the department’s lawless policing disproportionately affects black residents.
The investigation is one of at least 17 investigations into city police departments that have been launched by the DOJ under President Barack Obama.
The Department’s Civil Rights Division launched the investigation in May 2011 to assess “serious allegations” that Newark police subjects “residents to excessive force, unwarranted stops, and arrests, and discriminatory police actions.” And the division examined the period between January 2009 and June 2012.
The findings [PDF] show a clear record of racist policing by the Newark Police Department. Black people were found to be 2.5 times more likely to be “subjected to a pedestrian stop than a white person.” They were 2.7 times more likely to be “subjected to searches.” They were 3.1 times more likely to be frisked.
Yet, according to the department’s own documentation, the likelihood of police uncovering evidence was similar for both demographics. In 13.6% of frisks of whites and in 12.7% of frisks of blacks, evidence was uncovered. In 14.2% of searches of whites and in 14.8% of searches of blacks, evidence was uncovered.
Fifty-three percent of Newark residents are black. Twenty-six percent are white. Of 84,396 arrests, 79.3% were black while 6.6% were white.
The DOJ found that Newark police often used the “conclusory phrase ‘suspicious person’ without articulating any facts that establish actual reasons for suspicion.” This occurred in 1,500 illegal stops. Eighty-five percent of these illegal stops were of individuals identified by officers as black while 15% of these stops were of individuals identified as white. As the report concluded, this is a “proportion starkly inconsistent with Newark’s demographic breakdown.”
What makes this all worse is the Newark police appear to have no concern for whether they might be engaged in racist policing or not. The DOJ noted that the department “fails to track and analyze data with respect to race,” “which is unusual.”
“When requested to produce basic data on stops and arrests that included race, NPD was unable to do so because the NPD has not enabled its records management systems to provide this information,” according to the DOJ’s report.
Residents have had their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights violated by officers who have stolen their property. Deliberately officers have not returned money and property, “such as wallets, cell phones, jewelry and car keys upon arrestees’ release by the NPD.”
The DOJ report notes that the Newark Police Department is well aware that theft is a “serious problem.” The Special Investigations Unit and Internal Affairs have “conducted several reviews of officers with high numbers of theft complaints.” Theft of civilians’ property and money was found to occur at a high rate in specialized units, such as the ones that deal with narcotics and gangs.
The problem of theft extended to “highly ranked officers and supervisors.” Yet, none of the “misconduct complaints of theft against any of the officers with the largest number of incidents” were “sustained,” meaning everyone got away with being thieves.
“In fact, while the DOJ’s investigation was ongoing,” the report says, “there were several high-profile incidents of alleged theft by NPD officers.”
But that is just one part of the problem of stealing at the Newark Police Department. The report further indicates:
…The issue of theft is especially evident at the Green Street holding facility. On several occasions the Essex County Jail has rejected the property bags of prisoners transferred from Green Street because of discrepancies between prisoner property and their corresponding inventory forms. A late 2009 NPD memorandum indicated that property bags were being opened and money or property removed at Green Street. The NPD installed video cameras in the Prisoner Processing Division to determine who was stealing from the property bags. In 2011 the cameras recorded two officers—including a supervisor—disabling the camera. Although these two officers were charged with misconduct, neither was ever disciplined for tampering with the video cameras: the NPD terminated one officer for unrelated reasons and allowed the other to retire without sanctioning him, even though he had been found guilty in a police trial regarding this incident…
In addition to thievery, during the period reviewed, officers stopped at least 6,200 pedestrians without bothering to state any reason for making the stop in their police reports. And, in 33,000 encounters with pedestrians, 75% of the time officers “failed to articulate reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.”
The most common type of pedestrian stops involved officers stopping people for “milling,” “loitering,” and “wandering,” which is unconstitutional.
Officers also “illegally stopped individuals perceived” to “react negatively to the presence of police officers.” They also stopped people illegally for “being in the vicinity of an arrestee or a suspicious person.” For example, one report indicated “Actor Upon Noticing Our Presents [sic] Changed His Direction of Travel.”
Illegal stops were retroactively justified through evidence discovered after the stop or stops were justified based on the mere fact that the officer had decided to make an arrest.
Furthermore, the DoJ discovered that the Newark Police Department has an unbelievable record of uncovering narcotics in plain view when making narcotics arrests. At least 46 of 58 narcotics arrests reviewed suggested officers had not had to search for the narcotics they ultimately seized.
Officers claimed “suspects either voluntarily and immediately offered or discarded an otherwise concealed CDS (controlled dangerous substance) to the police upon mere announcement or recognition of police presence, or that the CDS was ‘in plain view’ of the officers when they approached the suspects. In the “plain view” scenarios, individuals often were purportedly seated in cars holding clear plastic baggies in front of them or on their laps and officers could “immediately” see the contraband, even though the report indicated that the subject’s back was to an officer, or that the officer had not yet approached the car.
The DoJ strongly suggests that the “sheer frequency with which NPD officers report finding contraband in plain view” points to the likelihood that Fourth Amendment rights have been violated in these cases.
Only one civilian complaint of “excessive force” by police out of hundreds from 2007 to 2012 was ever “sustained,” a fact that the DoJ said is “symptomatic of deeply dysfunctional accountability systems.”
Newark police “too often use open and closed fist strikes, especially to the head of the subject.” In many of the cases, the use of a fist was “retaliatory” and not to control any situation.
For example, here’s one of the stories of police brutality in the DoJ’s report:
…[A] man suffered a concussion, loss of consciousness, and bruises and cuts after a detective in plainclothes struck him several times in the face with a closed fist. The detective’s incident report indicates that the man swung first, but acknowledged that the detective had startled the man with his sudden presence behind him. The police practice experts who reviewed this incident for this investigation noted this response did not appear to be a defensive or control tactic, but rather was retaliatory. Additionally, a sergeant on the scene admitted during the IA investigation that, although he had kicked the man, he did not complete a Force Report as required by policy. Despite the severity of his injuries, the man was not taken to the hospital until he complained of mouth pain at the police station. Further, while the man’s hospital records were included in the investigative file, the loss of consciousness and concussion were barely acknowledged in the investigator’s summary, and appear not to have been discussed with the complainant…
Newark police were also found to be ignorant or biased against victims of sexual assault. The DoJ found that officers and detectives viewed “sex workers, employees of nightclubs or adult establishments, and women who consumed alcohol with an assailant” as individuals who could not be “true” victims of sexual assault.
The department has failed to respond to complaints of violent assaults on LGBT individuals. Officers have also engaged in harassment of transgender persons and assumed “female transgender persons are prostitutes.” And officers are regularly disrespectful toward LGBT and transgender persons.
What is to be done with this staggeringly corrupt police force?
The DoJ report does not propose that any individuals in the department be prosecuted for their criminal conduct. Instead, the DoJ managed to convince the Newark Police Department to agree to a “civilian oversight entity.”
But, as with a recent investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department, which uncovered what the DoJ called a “culture of aggression” among police, this conduct is likely to persist if officers do not face the potential of going to jail or being fired for criminal behavior.
A civilian oversight body can make recommendation after recommendation, but if the police are still able to engage in racist policing, steal from residents and commit rampant violations of persons’ constitutional rights, it won’t make much of a difference. The corruption within the department will continue to flourish.
Creative Commons Licensed Photo from Sean_Marshall