After two years, Paterson still waiting for delayed police performance audit

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PATERSON — Two years after the City Council approved a $167,000 performance audit of the Paterson Police Department, Mayor Andre Sayegh has yet to release the findings of the report.

The COVID-19 pandemic stalled the start of the audit, which was supposed to take nine months, until June 2020. Since then, the review has taken twice as long as city officials had projected. The Sayegh administration last week attributed the additional delays to the health crisis.

But the mayor’s critics aren’t buying that explanation.

Paterson activist Ernest Rucker noted that Sayegh has pushed ahead other initiatives, including the reconstruction of Hinchliffe Stadium, during the pandemic. Rucker said Sayegh has not made police reform a priority.

“It’s interesting that the mayor put the police audit in the back seat due to COVID-19, but that didn’t stop him from making sure the stadium gets done,” Rucker said.

Paterson’s Black Lives Matter leader Zellie Thomas noted that the world has adapted to the health crisis, asserting that COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse for the audit delay. Thomas said the pandemic should not have affected the consultants’ review of Police Department documents, adding that the auditors could have interviewed people through virtual meetings or through socially distant, in-person sessions.

The Passaic County Prosecutor will take over responsibility for internal affairs investigations within the Paterson Police Department is also conducting a review of past investigations along with the state, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement on April 27, 2021.
The Passaic County Prosecutor will take over responsibility for internal affairs investigations within the Paterson Police Department is also conducting a review of past investigations along with the state, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement on April 27, 2021.

When asked about the delay, Sayegh and his law director, Aymen Aboushi, issued a joint statement.

“The pandemic has caused delays and interrupted the process of finalizing and presenting the report,” the administration said. “Just last month we anticipated that a final report would be ready and presented in-person to the council and the public this month. The latest omicron wave prevented that from occurring.”

“We are diligently working to ensure that a final report will be completed and presented in person as soon as conditions permit,” the statement concluded.

When asked why the report has not been presented to the council during the virtual meeting sessions, the administration said, “There can sometimes be technological and other impediments with virtual presentation and/or not everyone may be able to access and participate in a virtual meeting.”

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The consultants, Washington-D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, did not provide a detailed explanation about the audit delays but expressed "hope we get a COVID break very soon and can come out and discuss the report on site."

In the time since the performance audit was approved, three Paterson police officers have been arrested by federal and state authorities and charged with on-duty crimes, including alleged assaults and cover-ups.

Last April, at the time of two of those arrests, Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes announced that her office would take responsibility for the Paterson Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, which is supposed to investigate alleged wrongdoing by cops.

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Valdes declined to be interviewed last week about what has happened since her office began overseeing the division.

Valdes and the senior assistant prosecutor in charge of public integrity, Peter Foy, issued a written statement in which they said the oversight has improved “the technological infrastructure and the police practices of the Internal Affairs Division to ensure its investigations within the Paterson Police Department are conducted in a professional and responsible manner to ensure thoroughness and accountability.

“Significant strides have been made in all areas so far, and we look forward to those improvements having a positive and lasting impact on the department once the oversight has concluded," they said.

But the prosecutor did not list any specific changes that have been made.

Sayegh first announced that Paterson would do a police audit in January 2019, when he cited such a study as one of his “tools for trust” to improve relations between the city’s Police Department and its residents.

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh greets drivers donating food to be brought to CUMAC in Paterson on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh greets drivers donating food to be brought to CUMAC in Paterson on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.

Another one of those “tools,” creating a civilian police review board, has been stalled amid litigation involving a similar effort in Newark. The third major “tool for trust” — equipping Paterson cops with body cameras — also was delayed and has not yet been fully implemented. The three officers involved in a fatal police shooting three weeks ago were not equipped with body cameras.

Thomas, the Black Lives Matter leader, often cites the mayor’s 2019 “trust” speech as a milestone for measuring what he describes as the lack of progress on police accountability in Paterson.

“We were supposed to get trust and transparency,” Thomas said. “We have not gained any trust and we have not gained any transparency.”

Sayegh defended his record regarding police reform, pointing out that his administration was Paterson’s first to equip cops with body cameras. The mayor also noted that last year he took the unprecedented step of terminating a police officer accused of misconduct before the disposition of the criminal charges against him.

Sayegh was citing the Spencer Finch case, in which video from a body-worn camera worn by another officer is being used as evidence in the assault charges against Finch.

The city has not revealed any of the findings of the police report. Thomas said city residents have high expectations.

“People are going to feel it was a waste of money if it doesn’t do anything to change the culture of the police department,” the Black Lives Matter leader said.

Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.

Email: editor@patersonpress.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ police waiting for delayed performance audit

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