By Marion Filler
The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, and the riots that have followed are stark reminders of what happens when communications break down between police and the community.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal this week announced new measures and improvements to existing programs designed to make sure it doesn’t happen here.
“I’m angry that a police officer suffocated a black resident in public,” Grewal said in a virtual town hall on Wednesday.
“Many of us are angry because three police officers stood by and did nothing while that happened. I’m angry that their conduct also tarnished the work of an entire profession, that it undermined the incredibly good work our officers do in this state.
“And I am angry because Mr. Floyd’s death reminds us that we have a long way to go in this country, not only to heal our nation’s racial divide, but also to address the systemic and implicit biases that affect so many Americans.”
The hour-long presentation included Gov. Phil Murphy, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, and state NAACP president Richard T. Smith.
Grewal pointed to an “Excellence in Policing” initiative launched in 2018 with a “21/21” program, which brings together law enforcement and community members in all 21 counties, at least four times every year, for town hall meetings, round table discussions and outreach events.
The three goals of the program are accountability, professionalism and transparency in law enforcement, the attorney general said.
“This is why New Jersey is different,” said Grewal. “It’s not something we did this week.”
The Excellence program as a “monumental change in the way we do business in New Jersey when it comes to law enforcement,” he said.
Anticipated additions to the program include:
Statewide Licensing of Police
This is in the planning stage but moving forward.
“Hundreds and hundreds of professionals get licenses, said Grewal. “It’s the hallmark of any profession and we are one of a handful of states that doesn’t do it.”
Smith looks forward to this one.
“I’m very excited about the directive regarding licensing of police,” said the NAACP leader. “We have to ensure that bad actors cannot lose their job in one place and go get a job in another place.”
Emotionally drained and tired after yet another murder of a black man by police, Smith said he had been reluctant to participate in the virtual discussion.
But recalling the words of Vince Lombardi that “fatigue makes cowards of us all,” Smith changed his mind.
“The black community cannot afford to be tired,” he said, adding that the NAACP will continue asking that “all police in New Jersey, every last one, wear a body cam.”
Smith said his organization also will push for legislation similar to the Hate Crimes Bill that would provide detailed procedures and penalties in cases of blatant police brutality.
Creation of a Statewide Use-of-Force Data Base
Originated in December 2019 as a pilot program, it’s being expanded throughout the state.
“It’s the first of its kind in the country,” said Grewal. The idea is to effectively report and track the use of force by officers across New Jersey.
Updating Use of Force Policies
Based on information collected for the data base, New Jersey will revise use-of-force policies that have remained unchanged for 20 years.
“We are going to do that in a collaborative manner,” said Grewal. “We are going to hear from all stakeholders in our state, from community activists to law enforcement professionals, to religious leaders, to make sure we are attuned to the issues that are out there, to make sure we have the best-in-class policy when it comes to the use of force in this state.”
As both the first female and first first black prosecutor in Cumberland County, Webb-McRae has long recognized the value of community engagement. She started a series of successful community advisory board meetings as early as 2006.
“We have to establish relationships in time of calm and be partners in solving problems,” she said, defining partnership as “communicating early, often and all of the time.”
Smith agreed the members of his community should have a relationship with law enforcement, too, particularly with police chiefs in their neighborhoods. “There should never be an incident that occurs in your community when it’s the first time you have a conversation with your police chief.”
Creation of a Crisis Intervention Team program
Grewal announced the creation of incident response teams within the Division of Civil Rights. “If there is an issue of unrest, we would deploy these teams to go there and facilitate the discussion, to bring the temperature down,” he said.
The model has been used by the Federal Department of Justice with good results, and he hopes to use it in New Jersey as a “force multiplier” to engage communities in the wake of traumatic incidents.
Governor Murphy said New Jersey has emerged as a national leader in community policing, and he thanked Grewal, who has “walked the walk” to build partnerships and to achieve changes in police culture.
Repeating the basic premise of Excellence in Policing, Murphy said “our charge now is to continue our progress to bring us closer to a re-imagined police culture, and increase accountability, transparency, and professionalism.”