Fair Lawn, unlike more than half of the police departments across the state, is on the ball when it comes to taking citizen complaints, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Tuesday.
The Fair Lawn Police Department was one of 21 (out of 69) departments in Bergen County where officers answered all five of the ACLU's internal affairs complaints questions correctly in recent phone conversations.
"This report reinforces that we do comply with the attorney general's guidelines," said Chief Erik Rose, adding that he was proud of the department. "It's not just a matter of paying lip service."
Rose, who said his officers had received training on proper complaint taking procedures, reiterated that the department takes complaints from anyone, any time, in person or over the phone, even if the person wishes to remain anonymous. They'll even send an internal affairs officer to a resident's house to take a complaint.
Five of the complaints involved excessive force, six were related to demeanor, one was for differential treatment and 36 were categorized as "Other Rule Violations," according to internal affairs summary reports.
All five of the excessive force complaints were either exonerated -- meaning that the incident was investigated and found to have occured, but that the actions of the officer were justified -- or not sustained, meaning that there wasn't enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegations.
The six demeanor-related complaints were all either exonerated, not sustanined or administratively closed, which means the investigation was closed prior to conclusion due to the officer's retirement, resignation or other circumstances.
The single differential treatment complaint was not sustained.
The only 12 complaints that were sustained involved "other rule violations," but the nature of those violations and who committed them is not public record.
It's this lack of context, the ACLU report claims, that makes the publicly available information about internal affairs complaints not particularly valuable. Without information on whether multiple incidents involve the same officer, patterns in the complaints cannot be ascertained.
Chief Rose said most of the complaints the department receives involve simple misunderstandings, in which citizens feel they were treatly poorly or inconvenienced by an officer who was just doing his job, and don't amount to officer violations.
If an internal affairs investigation does find that an officer violated department policy, he is subject to reprimand on a progressive scale of disciplinary action, Rose said.
Depending on the severity of the offense, the officer first may receive an oral or written reprimand. More serious or multiple offenses could lead to fines, suspension without pay or loss of a promotional opportunity. In the most severe cases, an officer may be demoted or forced to resign.
Rose would not go into specific incidents but said that in the history of the department, both under his watch and before he became chief, there had been officers who lost their jobs as a result of internal affairs investigations.
Capt. Joseph Cook was the subject of an internal affairs investigation last year that kept him out of the office on paid administrative leave for much of June. Upon his return, Cook was given the option of accepting a demotion to lieutenant or taking a suspension, according to his attorney. He found neither option acceptable and is fighting the charges in court. A trial date has yet to be set.