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N.J. State Police failing to catch too many mistakes by troopers on the road, watchdog report says

“The professional standards office also raised red flags about statistics showing troopers used police dogs disproportionately on black motorists, a trend that ‘has increased steadily for the last two reporting periods.’”
========, Aug. 25, 2013
By Christopher Baxter
TRENTON — Troopers patrolling New Jersey’s highways are breaking State Police rules at a “troubling” rate, and supervisors are not doing enough to catch the mistakes and fix them, according to a new report by the state Attorney General’s Office.
The report, which covered the first half of 2012, found the State Police failed to identify mistakes by troopers ranging from excessive force to improper vehicle searches in nearly a third of the 155 stops they were required to examine.
That shortcoming was made worse by the fact that the Attorney General’s Office recently allowed State Police supervisors to review fewer stops overall, with the caveat that they do a thorough job analyzing them.
“This is a very disturbing report,” said Samuel Walker, a national expert on police reforms who consulted for the federal government during its oversight of the State Police. “By the time you reach 30 percent, that’s getting pretty serious.”
The report also cited the State Police for using police dogs on a disproportionate number of black drivers, for not issuing Miranda warnings to suspects and for failing to properly activate and store recordings from patrol car cameras.
The findings were released online last month by the Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards, which was created to ensure the State Police followed its own rules after federal authorities stopped monitoring the division in 2009.
The sampling of traffic stops reviewed by State Police and the professional standards office were only a fraction of the more than 400,000 made by troopers each year, and the division’s examination is designed only to suggest areas of misconduct or improper procedures that need attention.
Though the report said the majority of troopers play by the rules, it noted a “troubling trend of increasing numbers of errors made during motor vehicle stops” even though the office repeatedly raised concerns about the problems over the past several years.
“The fact that OLEPS was able to note 46 stops with an error not caught out of the stops that the State Police did review, is troubling,” according to the report. “The State Police need to employ more detailed reviews and properly note all errors.”
Leland Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the State Police as well as the professional standards office, said in a statement the majority of the report’s concerns could be addressed with better training.
“The State Police continues to do an excellent job of protecting New Jersey citizens while ensuring overall, continued compliance with the various monitoring standards and criteria,” Moore said.He also said disagreements over troopers’ use of force were in part due to differences in interpretation.
A spokesman for the State Police, Lt. Stephen Jones, said the division will act in response to the report, but gave no specific examples of what was being done to eliminate the problems identified.
“The OLEPS report is not the end of the review process,” Jones said. “We answer those findings and refine our processes based on them. It’s the checks and balances designed in this system that allow for improvement.”
He added that the office has “unfettered access” to the State Police.
“Their job is finding areas for improvement, and ours is making those improvements,” he said.
Use of force
Among the problems, the oversight report said, were three instances in which troopers used force against motorists. The State Police reviewed the incidents and said the force was appropriate, but the office disagreed and investigations were opened.
The report said the office was unable to determine if force used in four other instances was appropriate because they took place outside the view of dashboard cameras mounted in the trooper patrol cars on the scene.
Dashboard recordings continued to be a problem, the report said, because many cruisers had incomplete audio or video. The office was unable to examine 51 stops — about 15 percent of those reviewed — because of “missing or unavailable” recordings.
The recordings, which were required as part of federal oversight, are critical to defend troopers from false claims in court and to protect the public from trooper misconduct such as excessive force.
The professional standards office also raised red flags about statistics showing troopers used police dogs disproportionately on black motorists, a trend that “has increased steadily for the last two reporting periods.”
“White drivers made up 48 percent of all stops, yet only 30 percent of motor vehicle stops with canine deployments,” the report said. “Black drivers made up 39 percent of all stops and 61 percent of canine deployments.”
The report stopped short of accusing troopers of bias, and noted all the canine deployments were appropriate.
Miranda violations
The report also sounded an alarm about the 49 instances in which troopers made an arrest but failed to inform suspects of their Miranda rights, which can lead to lawsuits against the state and increased legal costs for taxpayers.
“Not only are these violations occurring in stops without supervisory review, they are occurring in stops with supervisory review and not being noted or leading to interventions,” the report said.
The problem with Miranda warnings dates to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling that tightened standards for vehicle searches. But despite subsequent training for troopers on the new rules, the problem persists, the report said.
“The State Police may want to conduct random reviews of stops with arrests to determine the extent of the Miranda issue,” the report said.
‘Considerable progress’
Wayne Fisher, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, said that while it may seem the State Police are making a lot of mistakes, many of the problems are related to paperwork or other things that should not raise much alarm.
“There are some shortcomings in some specific areas, but I think taken in total, this report is further evidence that the State Police have made considerable progress,” Fisher said.
But Alex Shalom, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the true test of the professional standards office will be if it has the will and ability to force the State Police to improve.
“In any police department, you’re going to see failings by troopers,” said Shalom. “The question is, what are supervisors doing to remedy it? This report suggests they’re not doing enough.”

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