Tag Archive: civil liberties

TONIGHT in Princeton: A Conversation with Rush Holt

ACLU-NJ: Conversation with Rep. Rush Holt, Scientist & Civil Libertarian

When: Tonight 7pm

Where: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton

50 Cherry Hill Road in Princeton

Rush Holt is my old boss; I’m a vet of his campaign staff. We lost Holt as our representative when Hunterdon was redistricted into CD7 and Leonard Lance territory; a distinct step down. But he’s still my hero. Here are 3 things I find encouraging about him:

1) He was always more interested in the word “representative” than in the word “congressman.” That is, more compelled by his responsibilities to those he represented than any title referring to himself as a member of Congress. If that sounds pretty Boy Scout of him, then that’s exactly it. He has been a straight arrow as long as I’ve known him.

2) Rush is a good-government crusader in the best of ways. A leader in all kinds of civil rights and civil liberties issues, which include voting rights, protecting civil liberties in the face of NSA spying, and the First Amendment.

3) Brains. Straight up. I remember when we launched the My Congressman IS a rocket scientist bumper sticker, and started getting requests for them not only from District and Jersey, but from college campuses and other places where education and science are prized. I’ve seen those stickers – in Rush Holt green, black and white – in several states. But if anyone gets the idea that Holt’s smarts are highfalutin’ or ivory tower-removed, get over it. The guy’s a 5-time Jeopardy winner, and the only dude I know of ever to beat IBM’s Watson supercomputer. But he’s far less interested in his own intelligence than in other people’s educational opportunities, and in what science research can make available to the world.

My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist

For Sen. Shirley Turner to consider: ACLU guidelines for effective use of police body cameras

In the post-Ferguson world, legislatures are looking at ways to increase public trust in the police, increase the transparency and accountability of police conduct, and more accurately document police-public encounters, protecting the public against police misconduct, and helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.

And, to be frank, to clearly record and hopefully prevent  incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed teenager is shot and killed by police and differing accounts emerge. The thinking, by advocates, and by the makers of cameras already installed on many police dashboards across the country, is to get the story straight.

Senator Shirley Turner plas to propose legislation requiring police officers statewide to be equipped with body cameras. I think that’s an idea worth considering and I hope to see support from both Democrats and Republicans for this good government idea.

That said, I want to call to Sen. Turner’s attention, if she’s not already aware, that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has worked up some guidelines for how that should be done that I think are worth her considering. And that is particularly because they come from ACLU, which has a history of opposing undue government surveillance. That as a baseline, their support of police body-cams, make their policy suggestions valuable. These include guidelines for protecting the pubic against unreasonable invasion of privacy, preventing evidence from being edited to misguide how recordings should be used, and how long retained.

Here, in greater detail than I should summarize, are ACLU’s policy proposals for effective use of police body cams. I’ll be sending this to Sen. Turner’s office. I hope police chiefs and local municipal officials also give it a read.  

TONIGHT: CD12 Civil Rights & Liberties Debate – All 5 Candidates, Both Parties

New Jersey’s 12th congressional district is am

ong the best educated in the country (census). And it has been repped for 15 years by one of the most progressive members of Congress in the country (Holt: Highest Progressive Punch score in NJ’s House delegation). Part of Holt’s top designation is a near perfect ‘score’ in Human Rights & Civil Liberties, and other issues of social justice.

Extending the PATRIOT Act: Why I Said No

Update: Patriot Act extension fails in the House.

– promoted by Rosi

The powers of intelligence and enforcement are the most important powers of government – but also the most fearsome. These powers must be wielded very, very carefully.

For decades, our government has routinely collected information on potential foreign threats through various forms of surveillance.  These intelligence collection activities enjoy broad, bipartisan support in our country because of their value in helping to protect America’s citizens and interests.  However, in the 1960s and 1970s, these collection capabilities were turned on the American people, and executive branch agencies engaged in spying on the American public – sometimes even for political purposes.  

Police Reform Can Save Newark Money and Lives

promoted by Rosi

Faced with a $70 million budget gap, Mayor Cory Booker has proposed cost-cutting measures ranging from layoffs to shutting down city pools to wiping out the city’s toilet paper budget.

But one important area for potential multi-million dollar savings hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: cutting the astronomical costs of police misconduct. Each year, Newark spends millions of dollars defending itself in lawsuits and paying out settlements to victims of police abuse.

The public hears little about police misconduct lawsuits because the vast majority of cases settle, and victims are typically forced to agree to remain silent as a condition of settlement. In addition, only settlements over $21,000 require approval from the city council. Public records about all settlements exist, but there is no central location, making it difficult for citizens who want to know the actual cost of police misconduct.

To uncover the true costs of police misconduct, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, meeting minutes and a battery of public records.

This is what we found: Between January 2008 and July 2010, there were 24 cases brought by citizens against the Newark Police that ended in settlement or arbitration. For the 19 cases those settlement amounts we could uncover, Newark paid out $1,041,617. That figure is only for cases that have already settled — there are another 31 cases pending. And that same 18 months, at least 51 tort claims were filed against the police department – notices of lawsuits to come.

The cases describe nightmarish encounters with police: beatings, malicious prosecution, arrests of people videotaping police, homophobic slurs, recklessly driven police cars, and at least one sexual assault. Many of the officers named in the cases have a history of complaints against them, including one who has racked up 62 Internal Affairs complaints and another with 45.

Starting Monday, the ACLU-NJ will publish the details of a dozen such cases – settled and pending – brought by citizens against the Newark police on its website. We will release one case per day for the next twelve business days. Until now, most of these cases had never seen the light of day.

In the same 18-month period, the ACLU-NJ uncovered 11 settlements and one verdict in cases in which the Newark Police Department was sued by its own employees. In these cases, Newark had to pay a total of $2,691,503. Again, this covers only cases that have concluded; there are another nine cases filed by employees pending. The details of the cases that already settled, which the ACLU-NJ released in July, not only reveal the high financial costs of police recklessness, but the costs to officer morale and their professionalism on patrol.

When counting the costs, it’s important to remember that the money paid to those who sue makes up just one part of the bill. Taxpayers also foot the enormous expense of municipal lawyers and outside law firms defending the city in these suits, as well as the legal fees the city must pay opposing counsel when it loses in court. In the case of Darren Nance, a terminated Newark Police officer who recently won a $600,000 verdict, the total cost of the city’s defense, the plaintiff’s legal fees and the calculation of interest owed to Nance will ultimately reach into the millions.

Make no mistake – this money comes from taxpayers. Newark doesn’t have liability insurance. In fact, the settlement money comes from a general liability line in the city budget, not from the budget of the police department, so the Newark Police Department does not directly feel the financial pain of the pain its officers inflict.

And the financial costs are only the ones we can easily quantify; the steeper costs are incalculable. In the words of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “If individuals’ civil rights are compromised, public trust and confidence in the police are severely compromised.” In other words, police misconduct severely jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from the public to effectively fight crime.

Lawsuits and settlements can serve as teachable moments: they can reveal important information regarding dangerous patterns and practices in a department. Our review of lawsuits against Newark shows identical problems and behaviors spanning decades. When properly utilized, this data can provide police leadership the information they need to institute better training and accountability systems. Simply paying out damages will only lead to more abuse and more costs for the citizens of Newark.

Instead of trying to smooth over its mistakes with payouts, Newark should invest in reforms that can generate massive returns – in dollars, in lives, and in public confidence – allowing Newark to chart a path toward a new identity as a lean organization that will respect individual rights as capably as it protects public safety.

Until then, the citizens will involuntarily foot the bill for officers who violate our rights and for leaders who neglect the underlying problems that have plagued a floundering department for decades.  

The True Costs of Police Misconduct

Retweet? @CoryBooker – do you have comment for @BlueJersey on ACLU charge of Newark transparency issues? – http://bit.ly/aSKiqg

— promoted by Rosi (link’s corrected, thanks MJ)

Two weeks ago, amid news of layoffs in Newark, the City and its taxpayers took yet another financial hit: a high dollar verdict for a former police officer mistreated by the Newark Police.

A jury awarded Darren Nance $600,000, finding that the Newark Police had racially discriminated and retaliated against him.

Once lawyers tally up interest for this verdict, legal fees for his attorneys, plus the two private law firms hired to defend Newark, this case will likely cost millions.

Most cities rely on insurance to cover misconduct-based payouts, but Newark is deemed too high risk to qualify for a policy. Instead, these payouts come out of the pockets of Newark taxpayers. And for every case like Nance’s that goes to trial, many others settle out of court behind closed doors.

It is difficult to know, therefore, the full financial impact of police misconduct on Newark  taxpayers. We’re also left in the dark about the details of the misconduct at the center of those cases, and whether the officers involved are sanctioned.

This is a shame because lawsuits – especially settled ones – can reveal dangerous practices in a department. And when individual officers are openly held accountable for the misconduct, it can deter others from engaging in similar acts.

To determine how much police misconduct cases cost Newark, and shed light on the underlying abuses, the ACLU of New Jersey has combed court databases, City Council minutes and other public records to find settlements.

We found that since January 2008, nine lawsuits by Newark police officers against the City were settled, with the settlements totaling $1,696,503. These cases primarily involve discrimination and retaliation.

Lawsuits from officers are just the tip of the iceberg. In that same time period, Newark  awarded at least 23 payouts to citizens filing lawsuits over mistreatment ranging from false arrest to death in custody. Those, too, come with a hefty price tag – $766,617 from the 18 cases for which we have settlement amounts.

More cases are coming through the pipeline. We have identified 27 pending cases ordinary citizens have filed against the Newark Police since January 2008, and seven more filed by employees.

And there are likely others; since information about these lawsuits is not publicly disseminated or maintained in a centralized placed, we couldn’t find every case filed against the Newark Police.

The costs go well beyond finances, of course. Lawsuits aside, police misconduct jeopardizes community safety and erodes the trust officers need from community members to effectively protect and serve.

But money matters, too, especially during a budget crisis. If the money Newark spends  to defend and compensate for police officers’ mistakes went towards reforms instead – training, technology, and resources for police – it would save money, lives, and public confidence in the long run.

The ACLU-NJ has an unwavering commitment to both government transparency and sound police practices. For the public’s benefit, starting today, the ACLU-NJ will publish “the dirty dozen” of these cases on our website – representing some of the most egregious claims of discrimination, retaliation, beatings, and internal affairs corruption. We will release one a day for the next twelve business days. Many of these settlements have never before seen the light of day.

Darren Nance, however, got his day in court. He started his career as a Newark police officer in 1989 and encountered racism in the department after just a few months on the job. He spent the next seven years fighting for his rights, until the Newark Police fired him in 1996.

The jury verdict for Nance, along with these settlements, demonstrates that justice for police abuses can indeed come. But it also demonstrates a disturbing pattern: we see the abuses described in Nance’s complaints from 15 years ago repeated in the settlements and pending lawsuits of today. The ACLU-NJ, which turned 50 this year, has fought the same kinds of abuses against Newark Police since our founding; change is overdue.

The only way to prevent the same mistakes, the same wounds, and the same payouts from the same stories is root out their sources. Otherwise, the citizens of Newark will continue to pay for bad apple officers who engage in abusive conduct and for managers and elected officials who fail to fix the underlying problems.

Mayor Cory Booker: Please see me after class

Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey contributed this piece. – – promoted from the diaries by Rosi Efthim

In his six months in office, President Obama has disappointed social justice advocates with his positions on issues like gay rights, warrantless wiretapping and, most recently, indefinite detention. We all want to see our President succeed; he generates hope and excitement, and embodies long-awaited change. But we also feel conflicted – while we’re sympathetic to the many obstacles he faces to creating meaningful change, the president still needs a resolute front to hold his feet to the fire.

Newark, NJ, a microcosm of Obama’s plight, is a petri dish of a place with a visionary leader who inspires hope. When Mayor Cory Booker took office three years ago, he promised long-suffering Newarkers that he would capitalize on untapped resources, restore public trust in government and honor the civil liberties he has always held close to his heart. He also implored us to hold him accountable, knowing that government depends on citizens to keep it in line.

Mayor Booker has a full plate: reducing crime, confronting poverty and educating students whose schools have for too long failed them. But, in Newark, every plate needs a big scoop of civil liberties. After all, few cities have as extensive histories of civil liberties abuses against its citizens – the 1967 rebellion and riots were fueled in large part by police brutality. The mayor personally experienced violations of free speech and other rights under the prior leadership of the city, as the acclaimed film Street Fight documented.

This week, the ACLU of New Jersey issued Mayor Booker’s junior-year report card on civil liberties; he earned a disappointing C-average. When it comes to civil liberties, the mayor hasn’t reached his potential.

The mayor earned his best grades – B’s – in two subjects: open government and immigrant rights. In open government, the mayor swiftly corrected problems, such as his administration’s practice of having corporation counsel scrutinize each response to public records requests.

In immigrants’ rights, the mayor has set the right tone and backed up his words, working closely with community advocates to address tensions over day laborers waiting for work in Newark’s Portuguese district. He recognizes Newark’s diversity and the importance of defusing tensions between different communities and has demonstrated exceptional grace in discouraging anti-immigrant sentiment, even in the face of political consequences.  

However, the Mayor earned unacceptably low grades on two essential subjects: a C- in free speech, and a D in police practices.

Mayor Booker has yet to resolve basic free-speech failures. For seven years, the ACLU-NJ has grappled with the city to stop it from illegally requiring people to purchase million-dollar liability insurance policies before holding public demonstrations. The ACLU-NJ won a lawsuit ordering the city to end this practice and helped the city formulate its free speech policy, but City Hall workers still misinformed people that they needed insurance to exercise free speech in Newark.

The Mayor received his lowest grade, a D, in police practices, the subject that has most direct impact on citizens. The ACLU-NJ has received an unprecedented number of complaints against the Newark Police during the Booker Administration. We represent teenagers treated abusively by the Newark police, as well as a newspaper publisher illegally held in custody in an attempt to suppress his First Amendment rights.

Most recently, the ACLU-NJ took on the case of a woman stopped by two Newark officers who apparently had made a bet about her gender. The officers demeaned, harassed and arrested her on false charges.

Our clients who contacted internal affairs for help only encountered further rights violations, including having their complaints lost, misdirected, ignored and even refused, a grave situation given internal affairs’ status as one of the mayor’s top priorities.

At the end of the day, our report card is more than just handing out a grade. We’re looking at the real lives of people in this city and adding up the costs to their rights. While many of the civil liberties problems originated long before Mayor Booker arrived on the scene and some are perpetuated by the culture of the city, the mayor should have made more progress on civil liberties by now.

We recognize that, as with President Obama, the mayor has countless political and economic obstacles. But when it comes to taking decisive action to protect freedom of speech or stop abusive police practices, the citizenry is 100 percent on the side of the mayor’s success. We need him on our side in return. He has tremendous power to better protect civil liberties in Newark, provided he has the will to dig in and take charge.

We hope that the mayor will make civil liberties a higher priority in his “senior” year. Newark can’t have public safety without public trust, and Mayor Booker must earn that trust by respecting the rights of the people. Idealism and soaring rhetoric are inspiring in a politician, but bold actions must follow bold words.  

Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

Four South Jersey high school seniors’ moderate little act of resistance and artistic freedom brought down some punishment recently. Too much. Even if later, some of it was snatched back.

I held it, because we don’t generally comment on school policy. And there’s a reason for that: educators have the crushing responsibility not only for launching young scholars into the world prepared for life, but also for their safety. I believe in treading lightly where school policy’s concerned, and I respect educators. But a similar crackdown in a Morris County high school –  also over pre-approval of students’ words – makes me want to talk about this here.

Lower Cape May HS has an Annual Talent Show, for a lot of graduating seniors their last time to perform on their home stage. I remember those shows. It’s a big deal.

The Jetsons, all students there, were the closing act. Their song, like all material, was pre-approved by faculty. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Aeroplane (presumably with f-bombs excised). But at the end of it, they segued into unapproved material, Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall Part 2:

   We don’t need no education

   We don’t need no thought control

   No dark sarcasm in the classroom

   Teachers leave them kids alone

   Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

   All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

   All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

Ironic, given these seniors were headed to college … and more education. So there were cheers. It’s funny! And it’s a decent American tradition, that kind of impudence. Spunk. I wish I could tell you teachers grinned at the opening chords. After all, Pink Floyd’s their era.  

But, no. Amplifyer cords were yanked, curtains pulled. Then, punishment, for defiance of authority, insubordination and misuse of school property. Kids responded by coming to school in t-shirts depicting Hollywood 1950’s blacklisting, emblazoned Teachers! Leave those kids alone! Yeah, that’s a little dramatic, albeit correct grammatically.  But it got the school to stand down. Good on the kids.

Now, jump with me for the goings-on at Mount Olive HS. It’s a little worse: