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NJ Activists Want More Transparency for Police-Related Shootings

One proposal would put state attorney general — rather than county prosecutor — in charge of sending cases to grand jury

POP rally 1
Groups like the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) have been protesting in Newark and elsewhere seeking to get the U.S. attorney general involved in local police shootings.

Shelia Reid wants justice for her son.

But she says the way police shootings are investigated in New Jersey makes that impossible. That’s why Reid and civil rights advocates are rallying to convince the state to take over all investigations of police-related shootings.

Reid’s son Jerome was killed at the end of 2014 by police officers in Bridgeton. He was a passenger in a car during a December 30 traffic stop in which police say they found a firearm in the glove compartment (contents of dashcam video may be disturbing).

Jerome Reid was known to the officers as someone who had been convicted of shooting at law enforcement, according to the prosecutor’s report. After the first officer, an African-American, retrieved the gun from the glove compartment in his left hand — while still pointing his own gun at Reid with his right — he ordered Reid to stop moving. But Reid forced the passenger door open, according to the investigative report, thus causing the officers to fear for their lives. The first officer shot him seven times; the second officer shot once.

The police were exonerated, but family members and civil rights activists say the investigation was tainted by the close relations between prosecutors in Cumberland County and local law enforcement. Then-County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the investigation shortly after the shooting, but Shelia Reid says that was not enough.

“Everyone in Bridgeton is connected to one and other,” she said. “They are all connected together.”

Last year, in the wake of police shootings around the country, the state attorney general issued new guidelines for police shootings and other fatalities involving law enforcement — including deaths in custody. No longer can these investigations be handled by the department involved. The county prosecutor’s office takes care of local investigations and prosecutions. But incidents involving state and county law enforcement officials (a sheriff’s officer, prosecutor’s detective, or corrections officer) are handled by the state attorney general.

That is not enough, according to civil rights advocates, who agree with Shelia Reid that there is a built-in conflict of interest between local law enforcement and the local prosecutor’s office. They also want a much broader reform of police operations.

Groups like the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) and Black Lives Matter-NJ have been protesting in Newark and elsewhere seeking to get the U.S. attorney general involved in local police shootings, while other groups — the state NAACP, Black Issues Convention, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and NJ Clergy Coalition for Justice — have been working with Democratic state legislators to remove county prosecutors from the process.

Legislation was introduced last month that would do just that. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sens. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) are primary sponsors of Senate Bill S-2469, which would require all deaths at the hands of or involving law enforcement to be reviewed by the state attorney general rather than a county prosecutor. The state attorney general would decide whether to proceed with a grand jury, and whether the case should be heard by a state panel or a county panel in a different county than where the death occurred.

“An independent prosecutor will have more trust and credibility and will help remove any conflict of interest,” Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson), who will be co-sponsoring the bill, said in a press release.

Ari Rosmarin of the ACLU said the bill would “establish a system of independent prosecution in law,” which is “a critical part of reforming police practices and accountability in New Jersey.”

“This is both about eliminating actual conflicts and the perception of conflicts of interest,” he said. “A perception is just as important and, God forbid when someone is killed by a government officer, people want to have as much faith that the system will treat this fairly and bring justice to the deceased. The appearance of a conflict compromises that faith.”

The New Jersey State Association of Police Chiefs has not taken a position on the bill, but the organization supports the existing guidelines. William Parenti, police chief in North Plainfield and president of the association, said the current system — contained in a 2015 attorney general’s directive — has made the process more transparent.

“The prosecutor’s office has to come in and has to vet itself by asking questions about their involvement (with local officers),” he said. “If there is a connection they have to remove themselves.”

In addition, if a prosecutor deems the use of force appropriate or officers not at fault for a death and opts not to involved a grand jury, the prosecutor has to get approval from the attorney general. The attorney general, Parenti said, can overrule the county prosecutor and mandate that a grand jury hear evidence.

His concern with the Sweeney bill, he said, is that the attorney general’s office may not be equipped to handle the influx of potential investigations.

“We would need to sit with the attorney general and have a conversation with him,” he said.

Spokesmen for the attorney general’s office and Gov. Chris Christie said it is their policy not to comment on legislation until it is passed by both houses of the Legislature.

The Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which represents the vast majority of local police officers in New Jersey, did not respond to several requests for comment on the legislation. However, PBA President Patrick Colligan told NJ Spotlight earlier this year that the current system is effective.

“We’re not investigating our own,” he said in April. “The next level of authority is investigating. On a local level, where they are handled by the county prosecutor, these prosecutors have not shown any reticence to not indict a police officer.”

Civil rights advocates dispute this. John Burns, the acting chairman, Black Lives Matter-NJ, for instance, says it is not uncommon for people in the law enforcement profession to be connected at the local level, especially in smaller counties.

POP Lawrene Hamm
Lawrence Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress

Lawrence Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark says the connections between prosecutors and police, which can be personal or professional, impede “the ability for a fair and impartial investigation and prosecution to go forward.”

“That is why we have so few around the nation,” Hamm said. “We have so very few that even get picked up by a county prosecutor and even fewer that go to a grand jury, and then even fewer where they return with an indictment. And then a miniscule number end up with conviction of police officers.”

He says these conflicts of interest need to be eliminated, which is why Hamm’s organization has been leading weekly protests at the Federal Building in Newark calling for the U.S. attorney’s office to step in and investigate the Reid shooting and three other police shootings in the state — in Irvington, Trenton, and Rutherford over the past three years. There were no indictments in any of the cases. He said protesters plan to continue their Monday protests until justice is served.

“In all of the cases, police were not indicted,” he said.

The issue, says Burns, from Black Lives Matter-NJ, is transparency. Prosecutors and the attorney general are appointed by the governor, and law enforcement officials tend to view the world through similar lenses. Citizens, he said, have little access to information on law enforcement. For instance, the number of use-of-force complaints and the number of deaths at the hands of police are not released to the public. He said the Sweeney bill will be useful if it passes, but he thinks reform must go much deeper. He said the attorney general should be elected and independent of the governor. He also suggested that every town should impanel a civil-complaint review board for its police, which would force local officers to be accountable to the people they are sworn to protect.

“I would look at (the Sweeney bill) as a step in the right direction,” he said. “The court, the Legislature, they would be admitting that there is a problem with accountability and transparency in New Jersey.”

Rosmarin of the ACLU agreed that there is a need to move beyond what Sweeney and the Democrats are proposing. The state needs to look at all of the interactions between the police and local communities and ask whether quality-of-life stops — so-called broken-windows policing that focuses on low level offenses like selling of loose cigarettes or jaywalking — do more harm than good by increasing interactions with law enforcement.

Moreover, there needs to be data collection and data transparency.

“Data is an unsexy thing to call for,” he said. “But at a basic level, police cannot tell you who they are stopping and for what. It is not being tracked and, from accountability standpoint, if we are not going to know what officers doing in our name it is an accountability problem.”

Hamm calls it a cultural problem. Police culture, he said, is closed and structured to protect police and enforce control on local communities. The Sweeney bill, he said, “begins to address the structural problem and recognize that it is not a matter of individual choices. There is a structure in place that leads to the outcomes that we are getting.”

Any reform effort needs to look at who is being stopped and why, how officers are trained, and what standards they are held to, according to Hamm.

“We don’t have national federal standards for our police, which means we have a patchwork of police operating on their own,” he said.

The problem is that the all the parts of the system work in tandem — and thus the entire system needs to be overhauled. “We could talk about the county prosecutor and put investigations in the hands of the attorney general, but at same time we know we need to overhaul rules of engagement. The rules must be changed. The training must be changed. The policies, data collection, all of it must be changed.”

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POP's Hamm argues that the rallies in Newark and elsewhere in New Jersey are important to force social change.

Hamm says the protests in Newark and elsewhere are important to force social change. Without civil disobedience, without making noise, officials can remain silent.

“This is not specific to New Jersey. What we are talking about right now exists in every state in the union. It takes hell and high water to get the system to move and to do anything (even when someone is shot by law enforcement). In almost all situations, they had to have massive protests, had to have civil disturbances before the system would begin to move.”

Burns agreed.

“This level of civil disobedience is nothing new. The things we are demanding are very American values.”

For Shelia Reid, the protests have a narrower focus.

“I want the people responsible for his death to pay,” she said. “That is what the protest is all about. As long as we stick with this we will have progress.”

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