By Samantha Henry
NEWARK, N.J. — The American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday that the police department of New Jersey's largest city has so many serious problems _ rampant misconduct, lax internal oversight and too many cases of officers using excessive force during arrests _ that the federal government needs to intervene.
The ACLU's New Jersey chapter filed a petition Thursday asking the U.S. Department of Justice to provide an independent monitor for the 1,300-officer Newark Police Department.
In a 96-page filing, the civil rights advocacy group cited 407 instances of misconduct ranging from police officers breaking a man's jaw and eye socket during an arrest to seven deaths attributed to Newark officers. The deaths included shootings or ignoring urgent health complaints, according to the report.
"Our petition demonstrates an ingrained culture of lawlessness that can only be reformed through external intervention," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of ACLU's New Jersey chapter.
The petition says the city has paid $4.8 million over 2 1/2 years to settle 38 cases brought against police by residents or department employees, with at least three dozen lawsuits pending.
Newark police and city officials called the allegations frivolous and inaccurate, arguing the group is exaggerating problems that the city for years had been working with the ACLU to address.
"The ACLU has skewed the data and has represented it in a patently misleading fashion," said Esmeralda Cameron, a spokeswoman for Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy said he was dismayed that the ACLU abandoned what he said had been a fruitful partnership. He accused the group of taking the complaint numbers out of context.
Newark police responded to nearly 430,000 calls during the 2007-08 year, resulting in 261 complaints, he said. About 129 of the complaints were for excessive force, said McCarthy, and all complaints concerning the use of force are vetted by the prosecutor's office, not the police department, he said.
The department had implemented 20 of 26 of the group's recommendations, including training police officers to take civilian complaints against fellow officers, and disciplining them if they fail to do so, McCarthy. The department also agreed to require that all department employees be evaluated annually, he said.
ACLU lawyers said the reforms were not being implemented fast enough, and civilian complaints still were not being taken seriously.
Flavio Komuves, senior counsel at the ACLU, said Justice Department figures show that on a national level, about 8 percent of excessive force complaints filed with internal affairs departments are substantiated.
"In Newark, it's zero percent sustained," Komuves said. "That gives us real doubt as to whether Newark's police are capable of policing themselves."
Komuves, who compiled the petition by combing through federal and state court filings, said of 261 complaints filed to the Newark police in 2008 and 2009, internal affairs substantiated the merits of only one, an allegation of an improper search.
The petition also said 26 lawsuits brought by residents against the police department have been settled since the beginning of 2008; the payouts in the 20 for which settlement amounts are known totaled about $2 million.
The largest payout, $1 million, went to the estate of Rasheed Moore, who was fatally shot by police in 2005 after his car collided with a vehicle driven by two officers.
Twelve lawsuits filed by current and former department employees were settled for a total of $2.7 million and involved allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
Anthony Fusco Jr., an attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police, said the petition is full of false information and misleading numbers. He said the department is among the most closely scrutinized and investigated anywhere.
"The public can rest assured that if there's an allegation it's going to be investigated thoroughly. There's not a day that goes by when civilians who make complaints don't get their day in court," Fusco said. "They (police) are scrutinized so thoroughly that even the number of gallons of gasoline that the detectives are allowed per month is watched, like it wasn't their gas."
Community activists and anti-violence groups praised the ACLU's move, calling it "long overdue."
"The people pretty much don't trust the police anymore," said Salaam Ismial, director of the National United Youth Council, which has several anti-violence initiatives in Newark. "When you go to complain, you get shoved away, you can't even make an anonymous call, because it never goes anywhere, so a lot of folks just take it as deja vu, as part of police culture that's pretty much accepted: that nothing has been done to respond to people's concerns about the department."
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Twenty-one police departments across the U.S. have had some kind of federal oversight, according to the ACLU, including Los Angeles; Detroit; Austin, Texas and the New Jersey State Police, which was subject to more than 10 years of federal monitoring after three unarmed minorities were shot during a 1998 traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike that led to allegations of widespread racial profiling.