ACLU attorney responds to statements about settlement

In the News Transcript’s April 4 article about Manalapan’s settlement of the racial discrimination lawsuit (“Both Sides Claim Victory in Settlement of Lawsuit”), Manalapan Mayor Andrew Lucas asserts that the Manalapan Police Department was “vindicated,” and Man-alapan police Capt. Lou Moreto notes the police department’s commitment to “high professional standards.” Capt. Moreto also claims that the settlement was “an acknowledgment” that the offenses stated in the complaint did not occur. These claims could hardly be further from the truth.

As the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, I thought the people of Manalapan might like to have the following facts and information to evaluate this rhetoric by Manalapan officials.

In the lawsuit, testimony was taken under oath. The plaintiffs, three African-American youths, testified that while with white friends in Manalapan, they were stopped and searched by the police, and that the officers told their white friends to go home, that “you don’t have to see this.” The white friends stayed and watched.

The police officers admitted there was no reasonable basis to conduct a search; in fact, they denied that there was a search. But the sworn testimony of the witnesses corroborated the testimony of the three boys.

The boys’ parents had filed a complaint with the police internal affairs for investigation. The following facts, based upon police testimony, were undisputed. The officer conducting the investigation testified that interviewing all witnesses was “Investigation 101” and that the police internal affairs manual specifically requires that all witnesses be interviewed. Yet, the police closed this investigation without the white witnesses ever being interviewed.

One of the accused officers was interviewed for only five minutes and was asked only one question. The investigating officer candidly stated that “Internal Affairs or not, I’m going to believe my officers before I believe somebody on the street if it’s their word against his and there’s nothing else because I work with him every day.” In short, this was hardly an investigation of “high professional standards.”

By settling the case, Manalapan avoided trial and the possibility that a court would impose institutional changes on police procedures. But institutional changes are clearly needed, and nothing prevents the citizens of Manalapan, and their elected officials, from implementing improved procedures.

Thoughtful consideration of these issues might ensure that the taxpayers of Manalapan will not have to pay $275,000 to “vindicate” such “professional” police practices in the future.

John M. O’Connor


Editor’s note: John M. O’Connor is the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in this lawsuit on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.