One year after George Floyd’s death: Two voices, one issue

Part Two: Head of NJ’s largest police union says Floyd’s death caused ‘a recruiting crisis’ and explains the opposition to certain reforms
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
April 23, 2021: Damarra Atkins pays respect at a mural at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.

May 25 marked the one-year anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked the largest civil rights protests in U.S. history and forced America to reexamine racism and policing. NJ Spotlight News interviewed two leading figures in New Jersey’s debate on policing issues with contrary views on what has changed in the past year, what has not and where we’re heading.

The second interview in the series features Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, the state’s largest police union with over 30,000 members. Colligan warns of what he says is the current demonization of police officers. And he details why he and his union oppose several of the reforms proposed in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

NJ Spotlight News: You were very swift to condemn Derek Chauvin and the other officers in the death of George Floyd a year ago. You have characterized Chauvin as an outlier, a bad apple. So, my first question is probably the most difficult: Can you put George Floyd and the aftermath in its proper perspective?

Credit: (NJSPVA)
Pat Colligan

Pat Colligan: Derek Chauvin represents Derek Chauvin. Nobody has any necessity to go on a handcuffed prisoner’s neck for nine and a half minutes, right. We all saw the video … I’m sorry. George Floyd was not fighting violently at that point. Once he was on the ground and Derek chose to put his knee into his neck, it’s that that changed the game. And what has been very difficult to swallow is nine hundred thousand law enforcement officers across this country are not Derek Chauvin. All right. There will continue to be those Derek Chauvins, we are not robots … (but) we are not Derek Chauvins. And to put us in the same category, to paint police as broadly as some groups have is disheartening. It has had a profound impact on recruiting, which is of more concern because we have a  recruiting emergency. This is a crisis.

NJSN: At the risk of oversimplification, has the debate been moved into a positive direction, a negative direction? Do you think we’re going down a bad road now?

Colligan: We can always improve, right? I mean, policing has improved since the day Sir Robert Peel started the concept of modern-day policing; there’s always room for improvement, but to damn an entire profession for one action has really put a pall on the policing field … My daughter starts the Police Academy in August. And quite frankly, I’m begging her not to go in … This job has changed a lot in just a few short years. And I think there’s permanent damage when you crucify an entire profession.

NJSN: So why are you begging your daughter not to go in?

Colligan: Well, it’s hard to explain. I think the average person that we see on the street appreciates what we do. But, unfortunately, they’re not the vocal ones, the ones that we hear about constantly that, you know, you can just get on Yahoo or Google and see some anti-police stories, that the media is clamoring for the death of a Black male.

NJSN: Well, what about you? If you were a 20-year-old kid, would you become a cop today?

Colligan: I never thought about it, but I’m not so sure; I’d have to think a lot harder than I did in 1992.

NJSN: Let me ask the question about where we’re going another way. I saw a clip of you and you mentioned Rodney King, that the officers in that famous police brutality trial were acquitted because he continued to resist.

Colligan: Continued to fight.

NJSN: Right. if we held that trial today, would it deliver the same verdict?

Colligan: I’m not sure it would. And again, you know, to recount that, this is a horrific video to watch, but justified. And that’s why the officers were acquitted.

NJSN: I assume you’re keeping an ear on the ongoing U.S. Senate negotiations over the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act in Washington. As you know, it would ban the use of chokeholds by police officers except in life-threatening situations. It would set federal standards for no-knock warrants and it would also limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments. But the major point of contention seems to be the issue of qualified immunity, which shields police from lawsuits and limits civil liability. Where do you stand?

Colligan: Qualified immunity is just that you have to qualify for the immunity. If your actions as a police officer are so egregious or so out of the norm of policing, then you don’t have immunity. And that officer has to stand on his own. He or she has to justify why they did what they did.

NJSN: I guess the argument is over the standards of qualified immunity.

Colligan: What were the standards? The ACLU bring up this officer in Tennessee that sicced a dog on a guy who was surrendering … That officer should probably have lost his immunity. But again, quite simply, if your actions are so out of the norm of normal policing then I think that you should lose qualified immunity.

NJSN: But you’re saying the standards as they exist are good. Leave them alone.

Colligan: Yes. You again go back to the recruiting. You’re going to take this job if you’re going to possibly lose your home or lose your children’s college future? You know, mistakes are made … Our mistakes are sometimes violent and sometimes deadly. We are not robots.

NJSN: One of the prevailing and legitimate arguments of police advocates is that the choices officers make multiple times every day are dynamic and often split-second decisions. That is compounded by the fact that they are made in a country, and often in cities, where civilians are in possession of guns more than anywhere else in the world. So, where do you stand on gun control and on expanded background checks, on abolition of assault weapons?

Colligan: On a personal level, I certainly feel I’m a believer in the Second Amendment. I have  a couple of guns. Yeah, I think the broad painting of assault weapons is kind of overstated sometimes … I think at this point, you know, who’s going to go pick up the 300 million guns that are in the country? You know, I don’t think the police, and I don’t think the military are. We didn’t create these laws; we didn’t create these issues.

NJSN: But you do agree that just the sheer number of guns that are out there affect these split-second decisions.

Colligan: I know that they do, because they did when I was in [the] patrol [division]. You have to assume when walking into a known gang area that somebody may have a gun. So sorry that our gun is unholstered. Sorry that it may be pointed somewhat in your direction, but when you are trained in firearms and you realize how fast somebody can draw and fire before you even have a chance to react…

NJSN: All right. So let’s go to Trenton. You endorsed Phil Murphy, as I recall, in 2017. He recently said this: “I am proud of what we’ve done. We’ve done a lot in criminal justice reform. I put these steps we’ve taken in the engagement between law enforcement and our communities up against any other American state.” What is your response to that? And are you going to endorse this year?

Colligan: We don’t know, we haven’t made a decision on our endorsement. What Phil Murphy did was in line with what every state did after the George Floyd verdict or after the George Floyd incident. I don’t think there’s a state in the nation that didn’t undertake some reforms — some good, some not so good, some we agreed with, some we didn’t necessarily agree with. So we’ll see. The bottom-up with what Trenton does is if Trenton discovers they made a bad law, they never fix it. So we’ll be watching some of these issues as they shake out.

NJSN: Attorney General Grewal has issued 30 public safety directives and he’s issued half a dozen guidelines and standards since he took office. Some of them you have litigated, right?

Colligan: Yeah, specifically the one where he wants to go back and release 20 years of personnel records … We’re waiting for a decision from the  New Jersey Supreme Court.

NJSN: So summarize in a sentence or two why you’re fighting that?

Colligan: So many of these officers took discipline 20 years ago either assuming or being told that signing a confidentiality notice, that that would never be released. And I think that if you want to do it prospectively, or if you want to do it for those who violated the public trust, I have no issue with it … To change the rules and go back 20 years, it is as irresponsible as what (former Republican Gov.) Chris Christie did with pensions and benefits.

NJSN: There’s a handful of bills pending in Trenton, including one that would establish strong civilian review boards with the power to subpoena police departments.

Colligan: You know, civilians don’t like us, meaning the groups that are going to be on civilian review boards are not exactly buying tickets to the PBA Ball. To give them unfettered subpoena power to us is ludicrous. I am a detective. If I am working a case and I need to subpoena your phone records or your financial records, I need to go to a superior court judge — you know why? Because that’s a responsible way to do it. A superior court judge will say ‘Yes you have probable cause,’ or ‘No, you don’t.’  To have civilians, again, generally groups that don’t like us, having unfettered subpoena power — like I said, it’s ridiculous … We don’t take a position against civilian review boards. We take a position against the irresponsible bill for how they’d like civilian review boards to appear in New Jersey.

We are the densest state in the nation; we rank 47th in police-involved deaths. We are the best trained in the country … I guess what I’m trying to say is, if it’s broke in another state, go fix it, right? We are not broke in New Jersey and the numbers prove it. There’s a reason every time I attend a police hearing in the Legislature they always have to bring up another state because there’s just not enough examples — or any examples — in New Jersey.

NJSN: Well, there is an example, and that’s in Newark, and there’s a strong argument to be made that that was broken — and enough so that there was a federal consent decree.

Colligan: We actually don’t represent Newark. I know that there’s a consent decree. I certainly know officers in Newark, but I can’t comment on it with any background.

NJSN: So for that reason, you wouldn’t offer an opinion on whether you think that that federal intervention has put the Newark Police Department on a better or worse track?

Colligan: Yeah, if it’s broke, fix it, thank you very much. Excuse me. There’s no magic there.

NJSN: Some police departments out around the country are experimenting with things like removing traffic enforcement from the duties of armed police officers, and that’s ostensibly to, you know, reduce the opportunity for violent conflict. Other departments around the country are sending out unarmed first responders in certain mental-health crisis situations to respond.

Colligan: The first girl to respond out West was murdered. She was stabbed to death. Excellent idea … I will help with the body count when unarmed, poorly trained people are coming out to enforce motor vehicle laws. … It’s just ludicrous to think that we just start tuning everybody we pull over … If you want to really help a community, remove ticket quotas. It’s already gone through the Senate … We don’t believe  in a sheet telling us how many tickets to write.

NJSN: Are cops being asked to do too much?

Colligan: You know, a perfect example of that is when Chris Christie shut down the mental institutions around the state, dumped all of those patients onto the streets of New Jersey and gave us no training on how to deal with …. So now it’s, hey, let’s shove mental training down the throats. Hey, we’re happy to take the training we can get. But the other part of that is there’s only so much time for training. And I hate to put it in purely economic terms because this is a legislator’s problem, the towns’ problems. There is no faucet of cash in the state of New Jersey or in any communities. So when the legislators start mandating all this training, you know, hold on one second. You know, they better give the money to do it, or it’s not funded, because that’s a shame of it.

Part One: Larry Hamm, chairman of People’s Organization for Progress, a Newark native who has been deeply involved in community activism for 50 years and one of New Jersey’s leading voices against police brutality. Hamm said he believes America is now at a critical crossroads.