Why don’t more cops speak out about alleged misconduct? Look what happened to one who tried.

Why don’t more cops speak out about alleged misconduct? Look what happened to one who tried.

The first time Asbury Park Police Sgt. Kamil Warraich alerted county prosecutors he had “serious concerns” his department was flouting state internal affairs rules, city officials took action.

They suspended him for “misuse of public property” because he used department letterhead to write prosecutors.

Two years later, Warraich warned in a 2019 internal memo that some veteran officers didn’t want to “waste” Narcan, a life-saving anti-overdose drug, on addicts. Their comments, he said, “make me want to slit my own wrist,” prompting police brass to again take action.

This time, they sent Warraich for a psychological evaluation over the remark and moved to force him into disability retirement last May.

He has spent the past 15 months at home, fighting for his job, even though he obtained a second evaluation declaring him fit for duty.

All the while, taxpayers have footed his $126,000 annual salary.

Amid national protests over deadly police encounters and demands for more transparency in internal affairs investigations, demonstrators in New Jersey also are asking a fundamental question:

Why don’t more cops speak out about misconduct?

Kamil Warraich

Asbury Park police officer Kamil Warraich has been on disability retirement ever since he said alleged misconduct by his fellow officers “make me want to slit my own wrist.”Courtesy Kamil Warraich

Warraich’s ordeal — in which he faced punishment over how he raised allegations of missing and empty internal affairs files, racism, excessive force and more — offers a case study on why many officers stay silent.

City, county and state officials declined to comment on Warraich’s case, citing a lawsuit he filed in March alleging racial discrimination and retaliation (Warriach is a Pakistani Muslim). In court papers, city officials broadly deny Warraich’s allegations.

In response to a list of questions submitted to the police department in August, an attorney for Asbury Park cast the blame for the prolonged absence on Warraich.

“Although the city has attempted to return Sgt. Warraich to active duty, he has refused to cooperate with its attempts to do so,” said the attorney, Dominick Bratti. Bratti wouldn’t elaborate, but Warraich said city officials are now trying to make him undergo a third evaluation.

“It has been very difficult and painful dealing with a rigged system,” Warraich said. “I’d rather be at work.”

Warraich is not a picture-perfect whistleblower, but whistleblowers seldom are.

From 2012 through 2016, he led the department in uses of force during arrests. He was also removed, he says, from a temporary assignment in the Monmouth prosecutor’s office because he had too many open internal affairs complaints against him.

Warraich attributes his use of force to his assignment in a gang and drug unit and claims his colleagues were less diligent about reporting their actions. And the IA complaints against him were old and deemed unfounded once he hired an attorney, he said.

To corroborate Warraich’s version of events, NJ Advance Media obtained and examined court records, public documents, internal affairs files, audio recordings, reports and transcripts of disciplinary hearings and psychological evaluations, as well as correspondence between Warraich and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office across two administrations.

The records show his complaints bounced from agency to agency without anyone acknowledging to Warraich whether they had proven or disproven his claims.

“If I’m wrong, I want them to say, ‘Kamil, you’re wrong on this,’” Warraich said.

“They simply don’t address it.”

The state Attorney General’s Office is now investigating some of his allegations, NJ Advance Media has learned, after previously kicking them back to county prosecutors. A spokesman for Attorney General Gurbir Grewal declined to “confirm or deny” the existence of such a probe.

New Jersey’s system makes it nearly impossible for the public or the press to determine whether a cop subject to a complaint is ever disciplined, and Warraich says he has had to fight even to gain access to material in his own file as he appeals his involuntary retirement.

That’s part of the problem, police transparency advocates say: How can you expect officers to speak up when they can become wrapped up in the same system they’re trying to expose?

“I wish there was a process for cops to report misconduct,” said Richard Rivera, a former West New York police officer who went undercover for the FBI in the 1990s to reveal criminal activity in his own department. He said he cooperated with federal authorities because nobody at the local or state level took his complaints seriously.

“There isn’t (a system). Not in the state of New Jersey.”

What happens to whistleblowers

There are plenty of cops like Kamil Warraich in New Jersey. Many never will say a word.

Why would they?

Consider what happened to Brian Royster, a former state trooper who first claimed in 2005 he faced retaliation for sounding the alarm about racial bias in how the New Jersey State Police conducted internal affairs investigations.

Royster, who is Black, claims he was denied career advancement and given undesirable assignments because he spoke out.

“If they want you out, they’ll hang you out to dry,” said Royster, now a tenured professor of criminal justice at St. Peters University in Jersey City.

State authorities fought his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, leaving taxpayers on the hook for $1.4 million after the state lost an appeal and settled in 2018.

Or consider Keith Stopko, once the leader of an anti-gang unit in the Attorney General’s Office, who said he became damaged goods after he reported sexual harassment, misuse of funds and lying on public documents by supervisors in the office in 2011.

After the state settled for $1.3 million last year, Stopko said he was offered his old job back, but refused.

“I’d be fired in three months,” he said. “They’ll come up with something. I’ll stop at Wawa on the way home and they’ll charge me with misusing my state vehicle.”

New Jersey behind the pack

In Alabama and Arizona, in Maine and Minnesota, police internal affairs records are open to public inspection.

Here, they’re a state secret.

The Garden State has made strides in recent years, at least on paper, to improve internal affairs, which long operated in shadows with little oversight from county prosecutors. In July, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring police departments to provide internal affairs and personnel files of officers to other agencies when they move from job to job, a reform aimed at weeding out problem cops.

Attorney General Grewal in 2018 established the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA), which investigates claims of corruption and police brutality, and updated state guidelines on internal affairs a year later.

OPIA, with a staff of 48 and offices in Cedar Knolls, Cherry Hill and Trenton, has faced a deluge of complaints alleging corruption and malfeasance by police departments and public officials — 524 over the last two years, state data shows.

It opened 124 investigations in 2019 and 103 so far in 2020, according to the office, but the majority of its work is conducted confidentially. The office also offers money for tips that lead to prosecutions, with limited success. State authorities identified only one case, involving theft from a nonprofit, in which an informant was paid $5,000 in February.

New Jersey remains one of 20 states where the public and even appointed civilian review boards are kept completely in the dark over internal affairs inquiries, giving little insight into how those ambitious reforms are carried out.

Police unions in New Jersey have vigorously opposed proposed changes, saying they would unjustly tar officers for minor infractions and, potentially, put a target on cops’ backs.

While New York responded to the national protests by passing a bill making many police misconduct records public, a similar bill in New Jersey (S2656) hasn’t gotten a hearing since June.

In August, the state Supreme Court dealt a crippling blow to Newark’s civilian review board, finding that under current state law the body can’t issue subpoenas. The decision was a setback for activists who want to see such review boards in cities across the state.

The fatal police shooting of 39-year-old city resident Hasani Best in August brought the issue home for activists in Asbury Park, who have been calling on city leaders to set up a review board.

The Supreme Court justices noted in their decision that state lawmakers could change things, and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, introduced such a bill (A4656) in September.

It, too, awaits a hearing.

A convoluted system

Here’s how things are supposed to work for “good cops” in New Jersey.

If an officer wants to report misconduct, they can go to their own internal affairs unit, which conducts confidential investigations following guidelines set by the attorney general. The unit is supposed to interview witnesses, take notes, and keep the accused officer and the complainant in the loop about the process of the probe.

If an officer doesn’t trust their internal affairs, or has a complaint about internal affairs, they can complain to their county prosecutor, who has authority over all police departments in their county, or the Attorney General’s Office, the upper echelon of state law enforcement that now houses the OPIA.

Here’s what happened when Warraich, the Asbury Park cop, alleged his internal affairs unit was flouting AG guidelines in how they investigated complaints.

First, he went to the prosecutor’s office.

“I have serious concerns about how our Internal Affairs Unit conducts business, especially in the past,” Warraich wrote in April 2017, detailing many of his own issues with the department. “I believe they themselves are not following the Attorney General guidelines.”

“I hoped (county prosecutors) would come in and audit the IA files,” Warraich said in a July interview.

What happened next with Warraich, records show, was a bureaucratic nightmare that repeatedly revealed the details of his allegations to the same people he accused of wrongdoing.

First, Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Lipp criticized Warraich for using official letterhead, characterizing his complaints as “your personal grievances with your employer.”

“This unit is only authorized to investigate criminal matters as they pertain to law enforcement officers,” Lipp wrote in May 2017. “Accordingly, we must decline to take any action in this case.”

She forwarded the complaint to the city’s mayor, who gave it to the city manager, who gave it to the police chief, who gave it to internal affairs, according to public documents detailing the case.

In other words: A police officer’s complaint about internal affairs went on a whirlwind tour of the city and came home to internal affairs.

Charlie Webster, a spokesman for Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, declined to comment on Warraich’s case, citing his pending lawsuit. But, he said, his office only gets involved with local departments when allegations are criminal in nature.

“There are police officers, unhappy with discipline that they’ve received, who believe the discipline or their disagreement with same should trigger an investigation by a prosecutor’s office,” he said. “It does not.”

County prosecutors across the state routinely get involved in local internal affairs issues, and it is not true they only can do so when there are criminal allegations. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office has taken over entire departments or internal affairs functions of three local police agencies in the past two years, and last year the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office took over the entire Franklin Police Department, showing the broad powers prosecutors possess.

Next, Warraich turned to the Attorney General’s Office, filing a November 2017 complaint with the Division of Criminal Justice (which handled such complaints before the creation of OPIA).

He was interviewed by two investigators, followed up with a 12-page letter outlining his allegations and asked that state authorities, not the county prosecutor or his own department, look into them.

“My main concern is that people in our business can be very vindictive, especially bosses with all the power,” he wrote.

A month later, Warraich was copied on a letter from the office to Lipp, one of the same prosecutors Warraich had complained about to investigators.

“We are referring this matter to your office for whatever action you deem appropriate,” the letter read.

Allegations of racism

Asbury Park cop's social media posts

Posts allegedly made and shared by Asbury Park police officer Joel Fiori led to an internal affairs investigation that found he had violated department policies. The nature of his punishment is not known.

A month after Warraich first complained to prosecutors about his department, he again went to his internal affairs unit, this time with evidence of racist behavior by a fellow Asbury Park officer, Joel Fiori. Warraich and Fiori had not gotten along for some time, Warraich said, partly due to disagreements over how Fiori, who coordinated lucrative overtime details, gave out assignments.

In May 2017, the pair argued about one such assignment, and because Warraich was a sergeant, he claimed Fiori was insubordinate, documents show.

Worse, however, Warraich claimed Fiori repeatedly made disparaging comments about his Islamic faith, often in front of other officers.

“I have witnessed on many occasions the big laughs coming from supervisors on his xenophobic, anti-Islam and racist comments,” he wrote in his complaint.

It would be a serious charge in any department, but especially in the majority-minority city of Asbury Park, where protesters have clashed with police during the recent months of unrest, demanding reforms.

Warraich attached screenshots from Fiori’s Facebook page, detailing 27 posts made between 2015 and 2016. They showed Fiori was a prolific liker-and-sharer of racist and sexist memes.

One depicts a Middle Eastern man standing next to livestock. “Marital status?” it reads. “In a relationsheep.”

In another, Fiori posted a selfie of himself wearing a red baseball cap similar to the campaign hats favored by President Donald Trump.

“Grab Them By The P—y,” it said, referencing the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

The Facebook posts, images of which were obtained by NJ Advance Media, also targeted Black people, LGBTQ people, Asians, Hispanics, welfare recipients and various people he encountered on patrol.

“Allow me to mention the really sad part of it all, most bosses and supervisors in APPD are friends with P.O. Fiori on Facebook,” Warraich wrote. “Yet no one has ever made the effort to change anything.”

A month later, an internal affairs investigator concluded Fiori “violated the department rules and regulations” and “has received discipline in regards to this matter,” documents show.

But Warraich said the investigation did not lead to Fiori’s removal from the community relations bureau, one of the most public-facing posts in the department, and fellow officers who were Facebook friends with Fiori were never investigated, Warraich claims.

The department did not respond to questions about Fiori’s employment status, the investigation or whether he received any additional training. Fiori could not be reached by phone and did not respond to messages sent to his city email address and his LinkedIn profile, which lists his current assignment as “Administration/ Community Relations.”

From warrior cop to whistleblower

Short and muscular with a tightly trimmed beard, Warraich looks like the sort of hard-charging cop you’d find on the streets surveilling drug suspects and hunting down illegal guns.

Early in his career, he described himself as a “thirsty officer” — eager to catch “bad guys.”

He’s also racked up one of the highest use-of-force rates in the state, according to The Force Report, NJ.com’s database of police use-of-force records, which relies on data from 2012 through 2016.

But in recent years, he’s been a prolific writer of memos and emails complaining about an alleged culture in the Asbury Park department of “noble cause corruption” and “ego-based policing” that he said hurt the force’s credibility, especially among the city’s minority residents.

Those missives can go on for six, 12 or even 30 pages at a time, sometimes making it difficult to determine what, exactly, he is alleging.

He is also a father of four and the president of his local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police — a chapter founded mostly by officers of color, who split off from the city’s Policemen’s Benevolent Association local amid racial tensions last year, leaving the department with two different unions.

Warraich founded an organization that represents Muslim-American police officers and serves as a “resiliency” counselor for the state FOP, where he helps connect officers in crisis with mental health resources.

And, memo by memo, complaint by complaint, Warraich created a paper trail of local, county and state officials playing “hot potato” with his allegations of excessive force, mismanaged internal affairs, retaliation and racism.

Changing the status quo

2020-06-02 Murphy press briefing

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal  speaks at Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily coronavirus press briefing held in the George Washington Ballroom, Trenton War Memorial. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med

When Gurbir Grewal was named New Jersey’s attorney general in 2018, Warraich said he saw a path to vindication: Here was the nation’s first Sikh attorney general, who in his first year announced a host of police reforms, from beefing up internal affairs guidelines to investigating public corruption.

At a police function in 2019, Warraich approached the attorney general. He explained he had deep concerns about his department and his complaints to higher authorities had gone nowhere.

Warraich said Grewal encouraged him to try again with the AG’s office. So after the attorney general launched OPIA, an office meant to handle police misconduct and public corruption cases, Warraich filed two separate complaints in December.

“I was very optimistic because I honestly believed the status quo would change,” he said.

The first complaint was a 30-page history of prior allegations and complaints of being treated unfairly by the administration for complaining about racism and violations of department rules and AG guidelines. State authorities are still investigating those claims, NJ Advance Media has learned.

The second contained detailed allegations Warraich said he received from someone with “firsthand knowledge” inside the department who was afraid to come forward “in fear of retaliation and retribution.”

That complaint alleged that Asbury Park Chief David Kelso learned in 2018 that multiple internal affairs files back as far as 2014 were completely empty and ordered subordinates to cover it up. Eventually, he claimed, some were designated “administratively closed.”

“These investigative files were empty because there was no investigation conducted pursuant to IA complaints by civilians,” Warraich wrote. “How can the IA complaints be administratively closed if they were never investigated?”

Kelso declined comment through the city attorney, citing the pending lawsuit.

In the second complaint, Warraich noted his source would not likely speak with Monmouth prosecutors because of how they had handled prior complaints.

Nonetheless, state authorities again kicked the claims back to the Monmouth prosecutor. A spokesman there declined to comment on whether they were ever investigated.

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Grewal, said the OPIA regularly refers matters to county prosecutors who oversee a department subject to a complaint unless there is a clear conflict of interest.

“OPIA refers matters to County Prosecutors when they can be better handled locally,” he said. “OPIA does not have the resources to handle every complaint referred to its attention. However, first (the Division of Criminal Justice) Prosecutors Supervision Bureau determines if there is a conflict, and if so, assigns the matter to another county, a decision that is independent of whether OPIA takes the investigation.”

Grewal, the attorney general, acknowledged at a legislative hearing in July that the Garden State “lags behind the pack” of other states in shining light on police misconduct.

In June, Grewal announced the state would take a step toward transparency, requiring police departments to disclose the names of police officers who received at least a five-day suspension, a designation known as “major discipline,” in annual reports.

The state’s powerful police unions sued, and the resulting court fight has stalled the disclosure. Meanwhile, the bills before the Legislature that would make all internal affairs records public and beef up civilian oversight of police have idled.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, sponsored the measure to open up police internal affairs records to the public. A coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, civil rights attorneys and former wrongly convicted prisoners wrote state lawmakers in October calling for them to pass it.

Weinberg said the bill could be merged with other efforts to establish a police licensing requirement in New Jersey, but was uncertain of the measure’s future.

Police unions have countered the disclosure of IA records would place a “scarlet letter” on cops guilty of little more than uniform infractions or showing up late to work.

Warraich said reform will never come to police departments as long as internal affairs investigations operate under a cloud of secrecy.

“The problem isn’t just exposing major discipline,” he said. “The problem is exposing the investigation. How you reach that conclusion is actually more important than what you reached.”

NJ Advance Media staff writer Alex Napoliello contributed to this report.

S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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Published at Sun, 01 Nov 2020 02:14:00 +0000

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