Use-of-force lawsuits may lead to decree

The Camden, N.J., Police Department will revamp the way it investigates complaints against officers under a proposed consent decree announced as a partial settlement of lawsuits charging police with using excessive force.

A Federal judge was expected to rule on the agreement at a hearing scheduled for Nov. 21. The decree, which was announced by city officials Oct. 15, does not address claims for unspecified monetary damages or the merits of any one case. It stipulates only that attorneys for the plaintiffs, City, Police Department and others named in the suits all agree that complaints against police should be better handled.

If U.S. Magistrate Robert B. Kugler accepts the agreement, Camden officials will implement a series of procedural changes, including: setting a 90-day deadline for completing internal affairs investigations, ending what plaintiffs’ attorneys say is a long-term police practice of stalling citizens’ claims by referring them to Municipal Court; requiring periodic reviews of investigations by the Mayor and Police Chief; and providing bilingual material informing citizens of other investigative agencies available to them.

The agreement also calls for in-service training for all police officers regarding new internal affairs procedures.

The goals of the consent decree, as outlined in a mandated statement read by Mayor Arnold W. Webster, are to ensure confidence in the internal affairs process; ensure the protections of both citizens’ and officers’ rights, and a “sincere desire” to improve existing Police Department policy.

The decree stemmed in part from a series of lawsuits filed by several Camden residents. In one case, Jose Clemente, a paraplegic, alleged he was assaulted by a police officer on March 18, 1995, as other police officers watched. “Though he advised the officers of his condition, he was dragged across the ground and struck while he lay helplessly on the pavement,” court documents said.

A court hearing is scheduled for January to determine whether hundreds of citizens who have filed complaints against police since November 1993 can participate in a class-action lawsuit for monetary damages against the City, the Police Department and officers.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.