Most police agencies in New Jersey make it unnecessarily difficult for citizens to air grievances about police misconduct, and they haven’t improved their processes in the past four years, a new study finds.

The average citizen "encounters numerous obstacles to registering a complaint," says the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter, which had trouble eliciting even basic procedural information from most departments.

"The results of this study are dismaying," ACLU-NJ policy counsel Alexander Shalom wrote in a report released Tuesday, "The Crisis Continues Inside Police Internal Affairs," a follow-up to a study done in 2009.

Last June and July, volunteers made calls to 497 departments across the state during normal business hours under the guise of seeking information for a friend or relative who wanted to register a complaint about a police officer.

The callers, whose conversations were recorded, asked whether a grievance could be made by phone, anonymously, by a third party, by a juvenile without a parent or by an illegal alien without fear of being reported to immigration authorities.

The ACLU-NJ rated answers as good or bad, or "bad access" if no one with the necessary information could be reached.

Of the departments contacted, 24 percent gave good answers, 51 percent answered at least one question incorrectly, and 24 percent provided bad access.

About 10 percent of departments — 51 in total — did not provide a correct answer to any of the five questions.

Asked about lodging a complaint by phone, 44 percent of departments gave good answers, 33 percent bad answers and 23 percent provided no access.

As for anonymous complaints, 45 percent properly allowed them, 30 percent denied them, and 25 percent provided no access.

When callers asked whether juveniles could lodge a complaint, 38 percent of departments said yes and 36 percent said they’d require an accompanying parent or guardian. The remaining 26 percent provided no access.

In connection with immigration status, 49 percent said complaints by non-citizens would be treated the same as any other, while 24 percent said the process would be different for a noncitizen. The remaining 27 percent provided no access.

RESPONSES TO POLICE COMPLAINT INQUIRIES STATEWIDE

COUNTY

GOOD

BAD ACCESS

BAD ANSWER

% GOOD

Cumberland

3

0

0

100%

Salem

4

0

3

57.1%

Morris

20

8

10

52.6%

Cape May

4

2

6

33.3%

Bergen

21

5

43

30.4%

Burlington

10

8

15

30.3%

Essex

8

6

13

29.6%

Hudson

4

5

5

28.6%

Middlesex

7

5

15

25.9%

Hunterdon

4

5

7

25.0%

Union

5

5

12

22.7%

Atlantic

4

4

11

21.1%

Somerset

4

10

6

20.0%

Ocean

6

14

11

19.4%

Gloucester

4

9

11

16.7%

Monmouth

7

13

28

14.6%

Passaic

2

2

12

12.5%

Warren

1

3

7

9.1%

Mercer

1

3

9

7.7%

Camden

1

14

19

2.9%

Sussex

0

5

7

0%

TOTALS

120

126

250

24.2%

When organized by county, departments in Cumberland fared best, 100 percent answering all five questions correctly. It was followed by Salem, 57.1 percent; Morris, 52.6 percent; Cape May, 33.3 percent; Bergen, 30.4 percent; and Burlington, 30.3 percent.

Sussex fared worst: none of its 12 departments gave good answers. Not far ahead were Camden, 2.9 percent; Mercer, 7.7 percent; Warren, 9.1 percent; Passaic, 12.5 percent; and Monmouth, 14.6 percent.

Some departments rated "bad access" utilized automated answering systems, while others said the internal-affairs contact was unavailable. One Passaic County agency kept a caller on hold for 16 minutes and 42 others would not accept calls from blocked numbers.

Some departments "projected hostility, defensiveness or an eagerness to discourage a complaint," according to the report.

The ACLU-NJ posted audio recordings of some of the worst responses on its website, though the departments are not specifically identified. One Monmouth County officer advised the caller that the complainant’s family should obtain a lawyer before lodging a complaint, one in Hudson refused to speak to a caller who would not give his name, one in Bergen said anonymous complaints would not be accepted in any jurisdiction because it would lead to false complaints, and one in Middlesex said of the fictitious complainant, "[i]f he is an illegal alien, I don’t know if he should be running around making complaints."

The shortcomings allegedly violate the state Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures, which direct that a complaint about police should be accepted by any officer from anyone seeking to lodge one — including juveniles, anonymous complainants, those filing by phone, and those filing on behalf of someone else.

The report cited a 2007 attorney general law enforcement directive mandating that police "shall not inquire about or investigate" any person’s immigration status unless he or she was arrested for an indictable offense or drunken driving.

The Attorney General’s Office received an advance copy of the report in July and is in the process of developing a quick reference guide and online training course for police, which will be circulated to all departments in March, according to spokesman Paul Loriquet.

"Consistent with our Guidelines, police departments should be facilitating citizen access to the internal affairs process and not, whether by design or circumstance, erecting barriers," he says.

Loriquet adds that the study "and our candid discussions with the ACLU tell us … that while IA police officials generally … impart accurate information to the public, other non-IA police personnel —both civilian and uniformed — need more training." The materials under development "are meant to ensure that all police personnel when called upon to assist a citizen in filing an IA complaint, have the knowledge to do that," he said.

Shalom recommended that the office require other changes, including a prohibition of telephone systems that don’t accept calls from blocked numbers, creation of language-accessibility standards for non-English speakers, and random compliance tests.

County prosecutors were provided with copies of the report two weeks ago.

Shalom calls the poor performance record "a very big problem with a small solution."

"You’re not dealing with bad cops or cops who are purposely flouting the rules," Shalom says. "It’s not borne out of malfeasance; it’s just a lack of training."

After the 2009 study — which also concluded that most departments were not following proper complaint procedures — the ACLU-NJ produced its own reference guide and an informational video.

Shalom says he hopes the ACLU-NJ will not have to issue a third report. "We’ll do it if we have to, but we think there are people in a better position to do it."