All NJ police to get new training on excessive force

Attorney general says program based on new rules to limit police violence and needed to rebuild trust
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
File Photo: Newark Police

New Jersey is in the midst of providing two days of training for all police as part of a comprehensive approach that has two main goals: restore public trust in law enforcement and prevent the use of excessive force that has killed people and sparked protests across the country, the state’s attorney general told lawmakers Thursday.

“There is a crisis of confidence in policing,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. “We recognize the need to bridge that divide and rebuild that trust with the public. We need that trust for public safety.”

Members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee quizzed Grewal on curtailing the unnecessary use of force during a hearing on the proposed $1.2 billion budget, which includes $739 million in state funds, for the Department of Law and Public Safety. Last year’s death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while being kneeled on by a Minneapolis police officer, the shooting death earlier this week of a young Black man by an officer in nearby Brooklyn Center and the pepper-spraying of a Black man in his army fatigues during a traffic stop in Windsor, Virginia, were all cited during the hearing.

Grewal directly cited Floyd’s death in May, a case in which former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial charged with murder and manslaughter. Part of the new training in New Jersey is to teach police to intervene when a fellow officer is using inappropriate force, Grewal said, “so we don’t have that video from Minneapolis happen in New Jersey where three cops stood by while a fourth killed somebody.”

Floyd’s death sparked protests around the country last spring and summer. Grewal said New Jersey has “not seen the kinds of protests as the rest of the country” because the state’s law enforcement leaders have generally set a good example. He noted that Camden County Metro Police Chief Joe Wysocki marched with citizens during a Black Lives Matter protest in the city last May, even while just across the river, Philadelphia suffered unrest.

WATCH: Attorney General Gurbir Grewal revises use-of-force policies for police in NJ

Preventing escalation

The revision of the state’s use-of-force policy, announced last December, includes training in de-escalation and active bystandership. Grewal suggested those new rules were overdue and needed both to ensure that New Jersey law enforcement officers know how to stop situations from needlessly escalating to the point of death or injury and instill confidence in the public that police really are working to protect them.

Grewal said his office’s review of use of force predated the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following Floyd’s death and included “robust community engagement,” including listening sessions in each county — some of which were done online due to the coronavirus pandemic — as well as meetings with stakeholders.

The revised use-of-force policy’s principal tenet states that all forms of physical force against a civilian are prohibited except as a last resort. Use of force should come only after an officer attempts to de-escalate a situation and give the individual a chance to comply with the officer’s instructions, it says. The policy also requires that all officers must intervene if they see another officer engage in an illegal or excessive use of force against a civilian and provide medical assistance if any forceful action injures a person.

More than a policy needed

Still, having a policy is not enough, Grewal said, so the state is requiring two days of training, using programs that include evaluating real-life situations and camera footage of incidents from other jurisdictions. These have proven successful in reducing the use of force in other parts of the country. The hope is to have all 38,000 New Jersey police officers trained by the end of the year, though the continuing coronavirus pandemic may mean that takes a little longer.

“You have to backstop it (the policy) with the best training,” he said.

The goal of one day’s training is “to understand how you don’t have to rush to resolve situations,” but to act more methodically when appropriate and to call in mental health professionals to assist when possible. The other is meant to provide police who witness a fellow officer using inappropriate force with “the skills to step in and the techniques to step in and stop that from happening if they see that happening.”

Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
File photo: A police body camera

Part of what will also help police the police is the state’s $58 million program to provide body cameras to every officer who interacts with the public. The attorney general said that “everyone behaves better” when they know they are being captured on camera, but also said the video is important for training officers in what works well and what can be improved. According to answers Grewal’s office provided to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, police departments could begin applying last month for funds to purchase cameras or for reimbursement for cameras already acquired. The application deadline is April 30 and the department plans to begin notifying agencies of their awards around June 1.

In answer to a lawmaker’s question, Grewal said he anticipates there will be enough money to cover all the camera costs, but “if not, I will be back asking for a supplemental appropriation.”

Grewal also touted the new use of the force data website the state launched earlier this month that allows the public to look at individual departments and officers and look at statewide statistics.

“You need oversight, and that use-of-force portal captures 70 data points on every use of force,” including the race of the victim,  race of the officer and the circumstances and type of force used, Grewal said. “And that goes to supervisors and supervisors have an obligation to look at it under the new policy and review it, not just the form, but the videos, if there’s video, and do a deep dive … We have the ability to look at it and see disparities, numbers, if they’re going in the wrong direction, if a particular department is using force against Black and brown communities at a higher rate, then we can get in early and not let problems escalate.”

In concert with this, the department is also developing a cultural and implicit bias training program to provide to all officers statewide. So far, State Police and at least one representative of each of the 21 counties’ prosecutor’s offices has completed implicit bias training.

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) questioned whether all these new requirements have impacted the morale of police and made it harder to recruit new officers, saying he and most people witness “professionalism” from law enforcement.

Grewal said the number of people applying for a new State Police class is lower than in the past. He said police leaders have been involved with designing the new procedures but acknowledged some of the rank and file may be unhappy with some of the reforms. Still, they are necessary.

“In the long run, I think it’s been a net positive all around,” Grewal said. “Some cops may not like the change, but I think it’s required for this moment.”

READ: NJ lawmakers vote to put $58 million toward police body cameras

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