Police brutality cases and false arrest lawsuits make headlines, but an investigation by WNYC Radio found that New Jersey police officers are more likely than the citizens they police to bring civil litigation against their departments.
The analysis of litigation between 2009 and 2012 found that 148 settlements between New Jersey police officers against their departments cost taxpayers $29 million. That is 45 percent more than the $20 million paid in settlements and legal fees associated with 117 lawsuits filed by civilians.
“It has become such a ping-pong of litigation," said Antonio Hernandez, the president of the National Coalition of Latino Officers. "I’ve seen lieutenants suing lieutenants, captains suing captains. Chiefs being sued by everyone.”
Hernandez said the problem is that New Jersey police departments often have politically appointed chiefs who sometimes play favorites -- and sometimes have bitter feuds with cops they dislike.
In her radio report, WNYC reporter Sally Herships tells the story of a $165,000 settlement paid by the Camden Police Department after a 20-year veteran cop accused her bosses of planting drugs in her police car.
Like most cop-on-cop lawsuits, the facts in the Camden case are disputed. Camden’s former chief denies any knowledge of how the cocaine made it into the vehicle. The case was settled without an admission of wrongdoing by both parties.
Regardless of whether there is merit to a case, Herships found lawsuits filed by officers often spawn appeals and counter-suits that become money pits for taxpayer dollars.
Mitchell Sklar, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, said it shouldn't be a surprise that lots of police officers sue their departments. Lots of employees in every industry sue their employers.
"I think it is a trend in society. I don’t think it is specific to law enforcement, " Sklar said.
Sklar noted that in New Jersey, county prosecutors have oversight of police departments and can investigate when cops have serious complaints against their chiefs.
But critics, such as Hernandez, say prosecutors too often side with police brass, leaving jilted cops with no other option than suing in court.
Hernandez also said internal affairs units are generally controlled by police chiefs so they are considered biased by many rank-and-file officers.
“There is currently no system in place where an officer can file a complaint against his police chief, if the police chief is the issue -- and he’s controlling internal affairs,” Hernandez said.