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Who sues police departments the most? Police officers

Cassandra Smith worked for the Camden police department for 20 years. Smith is African-American, and she was the first woman on the force to be promoted to Captain. The same day she was promoted, Smith was assigned an unmarked car. She was excited, she says, so she got the keys and went outside to take a look. Inside the car, tucked in a door pocket, Smith found three bags of crack cocaine.

“This is big league. It’s hardball. Possession of cocaine is a criminal offense, I could have very well, not just ended up being terminated, but could have virtually ended up in jail,” she says.

“Either you leave police services, or you take a stand. And I took a stand," says Smith, who notes that she loved her job.

In New Jersey, millions of dollars are spent each year on legal fees and settlements for lawsuits involving police. And, while you might imagine that a small handful of bad-apple cops are behind the cases, a strange pattern starts to emerge when digging through the legal paperwork. While there are cases -- lots of them -- where civilians sue the police, there are more lawsuits where police are the plaintiffs. There are cases like Cassandra Smith’s, of discrimination and retaliation, as well as harassment cases against whistle blowers. Between 2009-2012, it cost New Jersey taxpayers $29 million for cases where police sued other officers, their police departments and the towns they work for. 

 

For Cassandra Smith, the cocaine in her car was just the beginning. After a series of similar incidents, conflicts and changes in command at the top, Smith ended up suing for sexual harassment and discrimination. Her case was eventually settled for $165,000. People involved with the case say there's a whole other side to the story, but sometimes it’s just easier and cheaper for all parties to settle. We found cases like Smith’s across the entire state. Cops accusing cops of harassment, retaliation, discrimination. But no one is trying to fix the problems that cause them.

The costs from these lawsuits are typically covered by insurance. Dave Grubb, executive director of the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, part of the government entity that insures New Jersey towns, says many of the cases are petty.

“There was at least one case that we traced back to two individuals who couldn’t get along because of some school yard fights that they’d had probably in the third or fourth grade,” he says.

These cases, said Grubb, are wasting millions of dollars.

For Cassandra Smith, the only alternative would have been to go through internal affairs. But it turns out internal affairs answers to the chief of police. And, Smith says her problem was with the chief. 

“Chiefs gone wild” is how Antonio Hernandez, president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers, refers to the situation. He says he hears about cases like Smith’s all the time – not just in New Jersey, but also in New York and Pennsylsvania.

Hernandez says internal affairs should be monitored by the county or state, but it’s not. He notes that officers who commit real infractions and excessive abuses should be punished, and severely. But he says often times it’s the internal affairs system that’s abused, and as a result, innocent officers can be treated more like criminals than actual criminals.

“When we’re talking about an officer who misplaces a piece of equipment, getting suspended for 30 days, it’s a little excessive. Especially when the piece of equipment is an $8 slim jim,” he says.

A partial cause, notes Hernandez, is a lack of management training, which leads to deplorable treatment of police officers, combined with little or no oversight.

“I once had a lieutenant joke with me and said, 'You know, if internal affairs walks in here right now, tells you to dress in a pink tutu and to put on a dance, you’d better put it on, because if not, you’ll be fired,'” he says.

The number one reason for these lawsuits, says Lou Reiter, an ex-cop turned consultant and insurance auditor for police departments, is sloppily run internal affairs investigations.

"That's what gets you into trouble - when you don't do it right," he says.

“And so when they want to go after an officer who may have made a mistake or who may have engaged in misconduct they do it in a hasty manner and they forget to dot every i and cross every t. And when you do that you're opening yourself up to be challenged in some sort of a post agency appeal, whether it's arbitration or a grievance, or in a lawsuit,” he says. 

Reiter notes internal affairs investigators have to know the rules. Especially if they’re in a union department where knowing every nuance of collective bargaining is a requirement. He says often times the difference between a good department with no problems and ones with internal disputes comes down to the chief.

"At the end of three days we know who the thumpers are, the people who like to use force against people. We know who the skirt chasers are, the ones who are trying to use their positions of authority to work up dates. We know the people who are avoiding calls. If I know that, in three days of being on scene, everybody in that department should know the same thing," he says.

But look behind departments plagued by lawsuits, notes Reiter, and often times you'll find unions, likely to support officers in their cases. So, he says, states where officers are organized, like New Jersey, Florida, Ohio and California tend have more lawsuits. 

John Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Captain in the Newark, New Jersey Police Department, says another part of the problem has its roots deeply embedded in the way police are hired and promoted. Shane says bad police departments can be run like kingdoms where officer’s loyalty to superiors is valued over ability. He says that plus an out of date, draconian rule book causes problems.

“In the hands of an autocratic manager that rulebook can become oppressive and I can use it anyway I see fit," says Shane. "Because there’s a rule for everything and I know that I’m going to be supported on the inside by my bosses. So I just then open up the page and find you without your hat, your shoes aren’t shined, you’re three feet out of your sector and I’ll charge you for it and so goes the wheel of internal justice in the police department.”

In the wrong hands, internal affairs, says Shane, can be used as a weapon.

“The executive level of the organization wields the power over who gets investigated and who doesn't and how the investigation is going to play itself out. And, many times, when an investigation doesn't find what someone wanted it to find, then the investigator's punished for not finding in favor of the organization.”

Joanna Schwartz, a professor at UCLA who studies lawsuits involving police, says another reason for the spate of cop-on-cop lawsuits is that most police departments don’t pay settlements costs out of their own budgets.

“There is no financial pressure on those departments to take proactive measure to reduce the numbers of settlements and judgments,” she says.

In the business world, these lawsuits would be a huge problem, but no one in New Jersey’s government even seems to be tracking the cost. When something goes wrong in the state, police departments answer to their county prosecutors. The county prosecutor offices are overseen by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which writes the internal affairs guidelines for the state. The attorney general’s office says it is concerned about the issue, but only focuses on police conduct that leads to lawsuits from the public, and that lawsuits brought by police should be bumped back to the municipalities.

Schwartz says police departments should be tracking them. If an officer has a problem with a colleague, or a civilian, departments could use the data as an early warning system. But she says most police departments don’t even know how many lawsuits are opened against an officer.

“The next incident, or the next interaction that that officer has with someone, could become that high profile case," says Schwartz. "So if you’re interested in resolving little problems, before they become big problems, it’s very important to assess that information in a proactive way instead of waiting for the next catastrophe.”


Produced with help from Damiano Marchetti.

This story also ran on WNYC under the headline: "Good Cop, Bad Cop: How Infighting is Costing New Jersey Taxpayers".

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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