I’m still reeling after my latest run-in with corruption in New Jersey law enforcement. A month after the resulting conviction, I’m still learning bits and pieces of the story from neighbors who had prior bad experience with the same officers. Of course, it is impossible to use this information now and the details aren’t strong enough to take any other action to reopen the case.
I don’t know why I’ve had so many bad experiences with NJ law enforcement. I suspect that it is related to my activism and outspoken behavior but I can’t prove that. From a different perspective, I could make the case that these are all unrelated events. I am certainly not saying that all officers are corrupt, but I am saying that my own experience has been terrible. Considering the relatively little time I’ve spent in cumberland County, New Jersey compared to other locations and the observation of nearly 100% corruption and/or incompetence happened here, this is statistically significant; making it more disturbing than random anecdotal run-ins. I know that I’m not alone in this finding on a larger scale. A recent 2018 report by the Anti-Corruption Resource Center says “The police force is commonly identified as one of the most corrupt governmental institutions” on a worldwide basis.
Coincidentally, only hours after I drafted this blog post The New York Times and NBC News carried this front page story that reminds me that my police corruption situation could be much worse:
“Tartaglione, 49, is a former police officer in Briarcliff Manor, New York, who was arrested in December 2016 and accused of killing four men in an alleged cocaine distribution conspiracy, then burying their bodies in his yard in Otisville, according to court records. He was charged with drug conspiracy and four counts of murder and is awaiting trial.”
It is scary to think about how bad it could get and I don’t mean to slight the families of people killed by corrupt and incompetent officers. My problems are mild by comparison.
I’ve spent time examining my own behavior. Did I trigger or inflame the officers? I think of myself as calm and calculated. But is that how officers see me? My statements to investigators and my public comments likely irritate many. Over the decades I’ve given statements to multiple investigators including the FBI, federal prosecutors and state investigators. Targets of their investigations included local officers, elected officials, current and former county prosecutors, current and former Attorney Generals and even developer Donald Trump. (To my knowledge none of these criminals was ever prosecuted). Obviously these police officers took great efforts to drive many miles to talk to me at my remote rural address. These confrontations do not happen by accident. One officer testified that she drove to my part time home in New Jersey seven times before she found me there. In fact, the only times we see a police or law enforcement vehicle at my location is when they intend to speak with me. How could I draw so much negative attention? I haven’t, in the last 50 years, been involved in any physical confrontation or aggressive behavior. The last I recall was a playground fist fight in 4th grade. I later heard that guy was in jail after conviction as a union ‘enforcer’. Once, decades later, I grabbed a habitual sex offender by the collar and strongly warned him to stay away from my kids. It was effective; he never came around or contacted them again. But he sued me and I lost in court. But there wasn’t anything that anyone considered to be a sign of violent behavior.
I don’t fall for conspiracy theories but our government relations consultant warned me, on the day he resigned in May, that the state intends to increase criminal and civil prosecutions against me. A short time later, I filmed an officer apparently on a stake-out just outside my home when I was there alone. There was no one else at our small rural town on that morning. A few weeks after that the Attorney General’s office issued a letter saying they did not intend any further action against me. The contradiction is confusing. Also, I am well aware that without the photographs as evidence, a reasonable person would assume that I am paranoid and possibly suffering from delusion. (I’ve already had this conversation with a medical professional).
I think about my younger family members in law enforcement. My step-daughter and her partner are police officers. My son soon starts a career as a prosecutor. I wonder what happens to make a young police officer lie? I really can’t imagine it, though I wrote about this in more detail last month here on my own web site in relation to its potential effect on my professional licenses.
Aside from the analysis, it is clear that police and law enforcement officers pose a high risk for me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot trying to come up with a response plan. I considered leaving the state and my family supports that plan. That is likely to be the end result, but it takes some time to sell properties, relocate businesses and get new professional licenses. Then reading about the recent citizen actions across the nation to combat illegal ICE raids last week sparked some new response ideas.
My best personal strength is the ability to be calm and analytical. I used that skill to review my past experiences.
Back in 2006 I received three death threats by telephone (related to environmental activism) and after the first time I reported each call to the police. I had the called ID number of the threatening call and I had the telephone record showing that I called NJ state police a few minutes later. I turned these records over to my attorney later. As far as I know, the threats were never investigated. Police later denied receiving my calls despite the evidence. From what I see in court, judges almost always believe an officer who directly contradicts the statement of a civilian.
In November 2006 an attacker attempted to kill me in front of my house in front of many witnesses. The threats came after I published an accounting report that could be damaging to local officials. The evidence was clear that the attempt to “take me out” was pre-planned and initiated by an angry politician on the scene just before the attack. The attacker was charged by a Cumberland County grand jury. But that’s where the prosecution ended. The case was admittedly mishandled by the Cumberland County Prosecutor. When I complained to the prosecutor we met in person and she blamed the mistakes on her predecessor and said it wouldn’t happen on her watch. Then her office “lost the file” two more times and my confessed attacker was never charged with any violation. It’s difficult to comprehend unless I assume that there was maligned intent.
Then in 2009 I was assaulted on my rural front yard (only 20 yards from the spot of the last assault in 2006) by a NJ State Police officer while gardening on a Sunday afternoon. Consider that Money Island is so remote It’s a story almost unbelievable except that it was witnessed by my whole family from inside. My kids joke that this was the only time they ever heard me curse in disgust. The officer detained me, charged me, and was later coached by the prosecutor to use language that hid his bad behavior. The witness account and the police report said that I threw my hands up, backed up, turned away and walked back into my house where the officer chased and cuffed me. The prosecutor coached the officer to say that my step backward and hand movement in the air appeared to look like I was taking a “boxer’s stance” to confront the officer and the officer was in fear for his safety. It was a plain lie and everyone there on site as a witness knew it. Even so, I was convicted in municipal court of disorderly conduct and acquitted in appeals court. The officer, as far as I know, was never disciplined.
Then most recently in late 2018 a Fish and Wildlife officer made a fictitious charge based on false accusations, wild assumptions and Facebook posts. All of the witnesses interviewed in the case supported my statements that I was not involved, and was not on site. But the officer said that her superior was pushing her to press charges based on an “anonymous complaint”. I did not know the name of the supervisor at that time. But I knew that a competing business owner had already sent two of his guys, I called them “goons” to warn me that he would shut me down. This happened at my house in front of other people. I was a little shaken up but I did not want to show that. I laughed it off and didn’t take it seriously after that. A few months after the trial the same guy called me and said that I might as well give up because he had the officers on his payroll and would spend money to put me out of business. He admitted to being the person who made the anonymous complaint. It was too late for me to do anything about the officer’s behavior.
Anyway, this month I did some research on our legal rights when approached by a law officer and learned that it is pretty easy to avoid the whole mess by exercising your right to disengage with these four simple strategies:
- When approached by an officer, ask if you are being detained. If not (almost always), leave immediately without saying anything more. Get inside your home or vehicle ASAP. If you are being detained, don’t say anything about any topic without a lawyer present.
- If an officer shows up and wants to enter your property, ask to see a warrant. If they don’t have one (they won’t) ask them to leave. Tell them that they have no permission to be there.
- Record everything on film. The cost of security technology has dropped dramatically while the quality and capabilities have increased. There isn’t anything that happens in my community or vehicles that isn’t recorded and stored.
- Educate others. I’ve instructed the people I work with and my neighbors on the law, what is acceptable interaction with law enforcement, and the risks/penalties of engaging with law enforcement officers. Let the message sink in that contrary to what you have been taught, the police are not your friend. Especially when they are speaking to you. I’m pretty sure that my community accepts this position however I still worry that at a moment of confrontation that they won’t have a ‘cool head’ to remember to disengage.
The plan is to avoid any type of engagement that might give the officer the opportunity to accelerate the corrupt action. If they need to conduct a legitimate investigation then they will need to do so without me. In my limited experience, that is the best strategy and the tactic I will take going forward.