New Jersey is ahead of many states in the area of police reform, putting in place a host of policies social-justice advocates are seeking to help prevent killings like that of George Floyd and others by law enforcement and to ensure fair treatment for people of color.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do. In answering reporters’ questions during a coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy described the state’s efforts in criminal justice reform as “a journey that we will remain on for the rest of our lives” and said he is open to taking additional steps to making the system fairer.
Murphy touted the actions the state already has taken:
“I am proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve done a lot in criminal justice reform … I’d put the steps we’ve taken in the engagement between law enforcement and our communities up against any other American state.”
In the past four months, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has taken several steps to limit the use of force by police officers, mandated new training and launched a public database to provide transparency into complaints of force lodged against law enforcement.
But Grewal began pursuing reforms both in policing and in other areas of criminal justice well before Floyd’s murder last spring. Grewal has issued 30 directives, plus about a half-dozen guidelines and standards, since assuming his position in January 2018. By contrast, only nine directives were issued during the entire eight years of the prior administration.
His first directive, issued in February 2018, required the release of available video footage police recorded via dash or body cameras when deadly force was used by law enforcement. Those images were to be released after the initial phase of an investigation, usually within 20 days, when requested by the press or public. A December 2019 directive broadened that to include any use of force resulting in serious injury or any discharge of a firearm regardless of injury or death. Recordings were also to be made public if any person died during an encounter with police or while in custody. That update further detailed the necessary processes for independent investigations of use-of-force or in-custody deaths.
Some of the other police or criminal justice reforms put in place by Grewal or Murphy over the past three years include:
- Grewal has directed all state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies to put in place an early warning system or revise their current policies. The system he laid out requires departments to monitor officers based on 15 indicators, including internal affairs complaints, excessive use of force and civil or criminal actions filed. Three such incidents should trigger a review of the officer’s performance and warrant remedial actions that may include retraining, counseling, intensive supervision or other actions.
- The rules that govern internal disciplinary procedures for the state’s police departments were revised in December 2019 and further updated last summer. Among the changes is a requirement that background investigations into new recruits must include a review of the internal affairs files of anyone who previously worked in law enforcement. It also sets new timelines to encourage a quicker resolution to investigations and makes county prosecutors directly responsible for investigations of police chiefs and their senior staff.
- Grewal ordered all departments to annually disclose the names of officers subject to major discipline, meaning if they were suspended for more than five days, demoted or fired. State law enforcement agencies — New Jersey State Police, Division of Criminal Justice and Juvenile Justice Commission — are required to make public the names of officers subject to major discipline during the past two decades.
- Last December, Grewal revised the use-of-force policy for all law enforcement agencies statewide. It states that all forms of physical force against anyone are prohibited except as a last resort. It says use of force should come only after an officer attempts to de-escalate a situation and gives the individual a chance to comply with the officer’s instructions. The policy also requires all officers must intervene if they see another officer engage in an illegal or excessive use of force against an individual and provide medical assistance if any forceful action injures a person.
- Police will soon begin new two-day training sessions that employ real-life cases to bolster the use-of-force policy. One day will focus on de-escalation tactics and other ways to prevent officers from taking actions that could lead to injury or death. The other centers on so-called active bystandership to give police the skills to be able to step in and stop another officer from using excessive force.
- Earlier this month, the Department of Law and Public Safety launched a website that includes all instances of the use of force since last October and will be updated. It allows the public to look at individual officers, departmental data and statewide statistics.
- Last November, Murphy signed a law requiring all police officers to wear a body camera when interacting with the public and a month later put in place a $58 million funding mechanism for the new equipment and storage. Applications for funding for cameras are due by the end of April. Earlier this month, the state released a working group’s report and recommendations on the procurement and use of cameras and storage of videos.
NJ one of few states that does not license officers
In June, the state Police Training Commission, which creates statewide law enforcement standards, voted to create a police licensure program and overhaul training programs. Both initiatives are still being completed. New Jersey is one of the few states that does not license officers. Licensure is seen as a way to further professionalize policing.
There are other areas of reform sought by some advocates that New Jersey has yet to tackle. These include revising immunity protections for officers and creating municipal police civilian-review boards. Others are seeking the codification of some of Grewal’s directives or want to go further, including making it a crime for a law enforcement officer to use a strangulation chokehold.
Murphy said he would not comment on specific legislative proposals but said he will consider further reforms in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“If there’s an opportunity, as a result of this tragedy, to take steps that we have not yet been able to take, count me in,” he said. “What those steps are, I don’t know.”