By Riley Yates | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
A recent investigation by NJ Advance Media has shed light on the extensive financial costs incurred by police departments in New Jersey due to settlements in misconduct cases involving their officers. Since 2019, these departments have paid out at least $87.8 million to resolve claims of excessive force, sexual harassment, and discrimination, among other allegations.
The investigation uncovered numerous incidents of misconduct across the state. One such case involved Marlene Mazur, a Colts Neck resident, who was punched in the face by a Marlboro police officer during a domestic dispute call in 2016. Mazur suffered a broken eye socket, requiring reconstructive surgery and preventing her from working for months. She eventually received a $500,000 settlement from the township.
These incidents are not isolated. The investigation revealed that settlements resulting from police misconduct are a widespread issue, affecting departments of all sizes. From the New Jersey State Police, which paid $1.2 million to settle 12 suits, to the small Woodlynne Police Department in Camden County, which settled one case for $30,000, police departments across the state have faced the financial consequences of misconduct allegations.
However, the true extent of these settlements has remained largely hidden from the public, often due to confidentiality provisions included in the agreements. The investigation obtained the settlement information through public records requests submitted to 484 police departments in New Jersey. The data provided a rare glimpse into the financial toll these settlements take on the state and its taxpayers, raising concerns about the lack of transparency and police accountability.
The settlements covered a wide range of misconduct claims, including instances of suspects being attacked by police dogs, wrongful home raids, and lawsuits related to wrongful deaths resulting from police shootings. They also encompassed allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination, with officers claiming they were punished for reporting misconduct or faced biased treatment based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Officials from municipalities and law enforcement agencies defended the settlements as a necessary cost of doing business in a litigious society. They argued that settling these cases often saves money compared to prolonged legal proceedings, even when the government believes it is not at fault. Insurance carriers also play a significant role in these settlements, seeking to minimize risk and liability.
Critics, on the other hand, argue that these settlements shield problem officers from accountability and prevent the public from learning about concerning allegations. Confidentiality provisions in the agreements often keep the settlements out of public scrutiny, even when they involve significant sums of money.
The investigation recorded a total of 370 settlements across 147 police departments. More than two-thirds of these settlements had never been previously reported. Additionally, 337 police departments reported no settlements during the period analyzed. The settlements involved a small fraction of the total number of officers employed by these departments, with just 835 officers, or 5% of the force, named in the lawsuits that led to the settlements.
Despite the financial consequences, critics argue that civil lawsuits and settlements have not led to meaningful change within police departments. Strong job protections for officers make it difficult to hold them accountable, even in cases of serious misconduct. While some municipal officials claim that officers who engage in misconduct are appropriately disciplined or dismissed, the lack of public transparency surrounding these cases raises concerns about the efficacy of these measures.
The financial burden resulting from these settlements falls on taxpayers, either directly or indirectly. Municipalities that are members of joint insurance funds pool resources to cover claims, while others shoulder the expense on their own. In some cases, private insurance may also be involved. The settlements serve as a reminder of the need for increased police accountability and transparency to address these issues effectively.