On police reforms, Grewal walks a fine line

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is considered one of the more progressive attorneys general in the country. As law enforcement, he has to walk a fine line between the sometimes cross purposes of the community he’s sworn to protect and serve and the law enforcement personnel he leads in that effort.

In a recent virtual town hall meeting with Newarkers discussing police and community relations, Grewal told members of the Newark Community Street Team that he’s made strides toward police accountability.

“We’re one of five states that don’t license our police officers. We license barbers, we license doctors, we license nurses, we license lawyers but we don’t license law enforcement officers. We thought that we needed to do that so an officer couldn’t escape their baggage by moving from department to department,” Grewal said.

But Grewal has to support law enforcement, too, and as relations between the community and the police strain to near breaking, Grewal finds himself having to work harder to find a middle ground.

“You can’t question that this is an unprecedented time in law enforcement, especially when you look back to three months ago when law enforcement and all first responders were being hailed as heroes like we hadn’t seen since the days after 9/11,” said New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Director of Government Affairs Rob Nixon.

“The attorney general is taking steps in the right direction. We have a situation where New Jersey has been shrouded in secrecy for decades. And now he’s taking steps, small steps, but meaningful ones, to reveal the names of people, police officers, that have been accused of and disciplined for serious misconduct,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

In places like Newark, though, civilian oversight of the police is a fundamental element of reform say the mayor and others. The debate over whether civilian complaint review boards — CCRBs, or CRBs as Grewal calls them — should have subpoena powers to investigate complaints against police is before the state Supreme Court, with Grewal on the side of police. This week he seemed to be leaving the door open.

“All options need to be on the table to have additional conversations. There are some things that I think are legislatively precluded about subpoena power and about who puts out the discipline which are squarely before the Supreme Court right now,” Grewal said. “But depending on where the court goes or if the Legislature fixes it, I think we can create a system where we can have proper oversight with both a robust IA [Internal Affairs] process and a robust CRB.”

There is a bill that would allow for CCRBs to exist in every Jersey town. Assemblywoman Angela McKnight is the sponsor, but the conventional wisdom appears to be that legislative leaders want to hear from the courts before they move forward.

“It isn’t that we don’t need or don’t want supervision by the civilian powers that sit above law enforcement; it’s that a civilian review board with no training, with no understanding of criminal law or the procedures in policing will not only complicate the process of reviewing complaints against law enforcement, but, in many ways, could interfere with very valid complaints,” Nixon said.

“We have a situation where the police unions are deliberately trying to stop transparency,” Sinha said. “I believe they’re more interested in protecting bad cops than they are in protecting the public.”

And it is across that philosophical chasm that the attorney general is trying to thoughtfully build a bridge in an environment where nuance and any benefits of the doubt have all but expired.