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Watchdog finds police training firm taught cops offensive and ‘likely illegal’ tactics

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Watchdog finds police training firm taught cops offensive and ‘likely illegal’ tactics

Dec 06, 2023 | 11:30 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Watchdog finds police training firm taught cops offensive and ‘likely illegal’ tactics
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Street Cop founder Dennis Benigno speaking at his company's 2021 conference in Atlantic City. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Comptroller's Office)

Instructors at a police-training conference in Atlantic City that drew 1,000 officers — including hundreds from New Jersey — glorified violence, encouraged insubordination, and promoted unconstitutional policing tactics that undercut a decade of police reform, a state watchdog said in a blistering report released Wednesday.

Speakers at Street Cop’s six-day forum in October 2021 also disparaged women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, making more than 100 offensive comments that violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination, acting state Comptroller Kevin D. Walsh and his investigators found.

Walsh called for the state attorney general to investigate and legislators to act to set standards in the unregulated field of post-academy police training. He also urged law enforcement agencies whose officers attended to retrain them and refrain from spending taxpayer money on such unvetted conferences.

“We found so many examples of so many instructors promoting views and tactics that were wildly inappropriate, offensive, discriminatory, harassing, and, in some cases, likely illegal,” Walsh said in a statement. “The fact that the training undermined nearly a decade of police reforms — and New Jersey dollars paid for it — is outrageous.”

Walsh launched the probe in May 2022, but Street Cop founder Dennis Benigno sued to stop it, accusing Walsh of government overreach and political motivations. Benigno lost that fight in state court but sued again last June in federal court. That case remains pending.

Benigno told investigators many of the comments they found objectionable were an “attempt at humor,” saying: “We’re always trying to improve going forward.”

In a statement sent to the New Jersey Monitor, Benigno said his firm already had decided to “impose stricter standards on colloquial and jocular language occasionally used by some instructors” before Walsh issued his report.

“However, there is not one single instance in the OSC Report where we have advocated any practice that is inconsistent with quality policing,” Benigno said. “Isolated excerpts taken out of context from a week-long training are not reflections of the overall quality of the education that Street Cop provides.”

During a morning news conference, Walsh said his investigation isn’t over, suggesting investigators might look at other private firms that train police in New Jersey.

“The systemic risks seem to extend far beyond Street Cop, and Street Cop and this particular training provides an example of what can go wrong, and went very wrong there,” Walsh said. “Beyond that, I can’t talk about any ongoing investigation or the breadth of anything else we may or may not look at.”

Investigators’ eye-popping findings offer clues as to why Benigno resisted cooperating with the probe.

Speakers — including some who are active New Jersey officers — encouraged attendees to consult Street Cop’s “reasonable suspicion” checklist to determine whether to stop motorists and how to handle a stop, and most of the checklist’s guidance violates both the state attorney general’s directives and best practices on cars stops and the Fourth Amendment, Walsh said.

The checklist warns officers to look out for anyone “Licking Lips to Lubricate Lies” and that smoking suggests criminal activity because a motorist would smoke during a car stop for just three reasons — “they’re trying to mask an odor … trying to calm themselves down … (or) it’s their last cigarette before they go to jail.”

The checklist also lists as suspicious any car without E-ZPass or with a lawyer’s business card visible inside and a driver who questions the reason for the stop, calls someone, leaves on their turn signal after getting pulled over (dubbed the “Felony Flasher”), or creates “awkward closeness” or “awkward distance” during the stop, according to the report.

Speakers also encouraged officers to illegally prolong stops, investigators found.

Many preached a militaristic approach to policing, with one urging listeners to “be the calmest person in the room but have a plan to kill everyone.”

Another, former New York Police Department Detective Ralph Friedman, said killing people in the line of duty left him feeling “victorious” and that he was “batting .500” when he shot eight people, killing four, in his 13 incidents of excessive force.

And an Oklahoma sheriff who spoke joked about law enforcement officers loving guns, saying: “Sometimes you have to shoot folks.”

Many speakers preached an “us versus them” mentality, whether that was officers versus civilians, conservatives versus liberals, or officers who follow Street Cop’s teachings versus those who do not. Instructors also mocked police reform initiatives, mandated police academy training, and public safety initiatives focusing on drunk driving or speeding.

And many trashed civilians, with the Oklahoma sheriff encouraging officers to provide medical treatment to suspects — who he called “gang bangers” and the “pieces of s— of society” — only so they could practice in case an officer would get injured on duty.

“We don’t like treating turds,” but suspects are “live tissue labs” where officers can hone their paramedic skills, he said.

During one presentation, Benigno ridiculed citizens who record officers, saying such people are about to “get pepper sprayed, f—ing tased, windows broken out.”

And one instructor, talking about the car stop of an elderly Black man near Trenton, illustrated his comments with an image of a monkey on the screen behind him.

During multiple presentations, speakers bragged about the sizes of their penises, encouraged or discouraged attendees to send them pictures of their genitalia, and made hand gestures mimicking masturbation. Benigno also talked about wanting to die in Colombia surrounded by cocaine and “girls” who are “not as wealthy and need to do things to make money.”

Investigators found that officers who they interviewed found Street Cop’s teachings concerning as far back as 2014 because it “walked the line between legal and illegal,” but none reported their concerns to authorities.

“What is painfully evident is that it often takes more than laws and policies to change behavior and attitudes,” Walsh said. “New Jersey needs quality police training, and to have that quality training, we need regulation over private companies operating in this sphere.”

Recommendations for oversight

Such behavior is deeply problematic on several fronts, Walsh said.

It hurts New Jersey’s efforts to diversify its police forces so that they better reflect the public they serve, he said. Women represent only 11% of police in New Jersey and just 6% of state police, with 108 departments staffed only by men, according to 2022 state data. Seventy-two police departments were staffed by only white officers, even though racial and ethnic minorities combined apply for police jobs at higher rates than white people, the data shows.

It also comes as the state has implemented a series of reforms to foster a “guardian” policing culture, build community trust, and reduce police brutality, bias, and misconduct, Walsh said. New Jersey police forces have paid more than $90 million since 2019 to resolve claims of officer misconduct, including excessive force, harassment, and discrimination.

The conference essentially was “a pep rally for bad policing,” Walsh said.

“What this training did was normalize discriminatory and harassing behavior, the kind of behavior and attitudes that lead to violations of constitutional rights to discrimination to excessive force complaints, and ultimately to lawsuits, which the taxpayers end up paying for,” Walsh said. “New Jersey can’t afford, can’t allow this to continue any longer.”

Attorney General Matt Platkin called Walsh’s findings “deeply troubling, potentially unconstitutional, and certainly unacceptable.” He noted the conference occurred before his tenure but said he is reviewing Walsh’s report and recommendations.

“The report’s findings are disturbing and not consistent with the State’s commitment to fair, just, and safe policing,” Platkin said in a statement. “I have formally referred the report to the Division on Civil Rights to take any and all appropriate steps.”

The state Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards has alerted state police that the training is inappropriate, would not be funded by the Department of Law and Public Safety, and should not be attended by troopers, Platkin added.

He said he had directed the Police Training Commission, even before Walsh’s report was released, to consider statewide guidelines for acceptable police training provided by outside vendors.

Watchdog finds police training firm taught cops offensive and ‘likely illegal’ tactics
Acting Comptroller Kevin Walsh (Courtesy of the Office of the State Comptroller)

Walsh made several recommendations, including:

  • Lawmakers should establish licensing policies for private police training in New Jersey that set minimum standards, require regular reviews and record-keeping obligations, and allow for temporary and permanent license revocation.
  • The attorney general should issue a directive to all New Jersey law enforcement officers requiring them to alert his office within the next month if they attended the conference so they can be retrained; turn in any copies of Street Cop’s reasonable suspicion checklist; and report any post-academy training they attend that contradicts state policies or directives or includes discriminatory or harassing content.
  • The Police Training Commission or the attorney general should oversee post-academy training and establish uniform standards and review and approve training courses provided by private companies and instructors and paid by public funds.
  • Law enforcement agencies that pay for officers to attend private training should better scrutinize training programs to ensure they comply with best practices and the law.
  • Agencies that permit active-duty officers to provide private training to other officers should review written training materials to ensure content is correct and non-discriminatory. They also should prohibit officers from using the agency’s name to bolster the credibility of their training or suggest the training is endorsed by the agency.
  • Agencies that used public funds to pay for the 2021 conference should seek a refund from Street Cop.

Street Cop, a New Jersey-based firm founded in 2012, claims to be the largest police training company nationally, training 25,000 to 30,000 officers a year. Benigno, a former Woodbridge police officer and state correctional officer, told investigators his firm teaches 40 to 45 courses to more than 2,000 officers in New Jersey every year.

About 240 of the 990 officers who attended the 2021 conference were from New Jersey, coming from 77 municipal police departments, six county agencies, one interstate agency, and four state agencies, including the state police, investigators found.

New Jersey agencies paid at least $75,000 in taxpayer funds to cover conference costs, according to the report. Street Cop reported receiving $320,000 from New Jersey agencies for trainings between 2019 and 2022, but investigators determined the firm was paid at least twice that, the report said.