Victims of sexual assault would get greater respect from law-enforcement and justice officials under new protocols issued on Tuesday by the New Jersey state attorney general.
The update was prompted, at least in part, by an assault allegation from last year’s gubernatorial election campaign that is dogging the Murphy administration.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued to law-enforcement officers statewide 14 best-practice standards for handling sexual-assault allegations, as well as a directive to ensure that police, prosecutors and others follow these rules. The protocols also set new reporting requirements for officials to help Grewal’s office better track and evaluate how cases are being handled. Additional training will also be required of all police officers in the state.
The new rules are the result, in part, of a request made last month by Gov. Phil Murphy that Grewal “review current law enforcement practices and determine whether more can be done to support sexual assault victims,” said Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for Grewal.
Murphy’s request came a day after a published report related one administration official’s accusation of being assaulted by a former official while both worked on Murphy’s campaign in 2017. The Hudson County prosecutor declined to prosecute the case and the alleged perpetrator got a job within the administration. An independent counsel and lawmakers are conducting separate investigations of the incident and the hiring.
Lauchaire said Grewal already had been in the midst of such a project designed to improve the handling of sexual-assault cases by law enforcement “including a two-year process to revise the AG Standards for Providing Services to Victims of Sexual Assault, which were last updated in 2004.”
“While much has been done through the years to make law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and other service providers more responsive to the needs of sexual assault victims, there is always room for re-examination and improvement,” Grewal said. “These documents provide for increased input from victims and further evaluation of these issues going forward. With these actions, we ensure that New Jersey remains at the forefront of nationwide best practices and standards in our efforts to stamp out sexual violence.”
The directive requires all law-enforcement agencies to report sexual-assault incidents and complaints to county prosecutors within 24 hours of an incident or of receiving a complaint. It gives victims an opportunity to talk with prosecutors when they decide not to pursue a case or before they enter into a plea agreement with an alleged perpetrator.
Revisions arise amid controversy
In the case involving the Murphy staffers, Katie Brennan, chief of staff at the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said that Albert J. Alvarez had sexually assaulted her after a gathering of Murphy campaign workers at a bar in Jersey City in April 2017. The Hudson County prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges in the case. Alvarez later got a job as chief of staff at the state Schools Development Authority, although Brennan said at least some members of the Murphy transition team and later members of the administration knew of the complaint. Alvarez remained on the state payroll until he resigned October 2, the day The Wall Street Journal reported it contacted him about the alleged assault.
At a press conference October 15, the day after the Journal published its story, Murphy announced he had named former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero to handle an independent investigation and that he had directed Grewal’s examination of the handling of all sexual-assault allegations by law enforcement “to change the balance so that victims are taken seriously and justice may be more easily achieved.”
Grewal’s directive also requires that all final dispositions of sexual-assault investigations be reviewed and approved by a supervisor within the special-victims or juvenile units of the prosecutors’ offices and that the counties report at least annually — and twice over the next year — about the handling and dispositions of sexual-assault cases.
“We need to do everything in our power to deliver the services that sexual assault victims need and the justice that they deserve,” said Veronica Allende, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice. “Our message to these survivors is, we hear you, we respect you, and we care about what happens to you. With the steps we are announcing today, we are rededicating ourselves as members of law enforcement and service providers to being as sensitive and as effective as we can be on your behalf.”
The protocols also address Sexual Assault Response Teams, which work to support victims in each county. These include surveying team members and victims to get feedback to improve the services and holding statewide SART Advisory Board meetings to monitor team activities, review their effectiveness and recommend additional changes to Grewal to improve services for victims.
‘Rededication to the victims’
Sussex County Prosecutor Francis A. Koch, president of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, said the prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, the SARTs and healthcare providers welcome the updated protocols.
“Many of the new updates and protocols are the incorporation of procedures and services that many of the 21 county prosecutor’s offices already implement,” he said. “These revisions are a way to ensure a rededication to the victims of sexual assault across the state and to standardized services from all of the providing agencies.”
Other updates include:
“These revised Attorney General Standards address gaps in policy and procedure and seek to ensure all survivors of sexual violence in New Jersey have access to appropriate crisis services,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one of the members of the working group that helped craft the new rules over the last two years. “For victims seeking services in the aftermath of a sexual assault, access to a timely, trauma-informed response can lay a solid foundation for pathways to healing and justice.”
Finally, the Division of Criminal Justice will be requiring all police officers throughout the state to take a new three-hour course on the response to sexual-assault allegations through the attorney general’s online training platform. The course was developed by the division in collaboration with subject-matter experts.