New Jersey may actually lead America toward police reform | Kelly
As much of our nation was preoccupied with the televised testimony from a Minneapolis courtroom where a former cop was on trial for murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd, something strange happened in New Jersey.
State law enforcement officials in Trenton quietly opened a website where anyone can track any incident in which a New Jersey police officer used any kind of force.
Punches. Kicks. Shootings. It’s all there for anyone to see — and assess. And what’s notable — besides the information itself in some cases — is that this is the first time any government agency anywhere in America has taken such a step to peel back the curtains of secrecy on police behavior.
This is what police reform may actually look like in the wake of the trial of former Police Officer Derek Chauvin, whose on-camera and fatal knee-to-the-neck restraining of Floyd last May on a Minneapolis street prompted widespread calls across America to change the ways police interact with people or make arrests.
Few meaningful reforms gained traction, however.
Soon after Floyd’s death, calls to “defund the police” became the mantra of protest marches in scores of cities. But the notion to strip resources from police departments by eliminating their funding never gained meaningful support. Simply put: America needs cops. The reasons are obvious. Someone needs to protect the public from criminals.
But policing needed to change, too — also for obvious reasons. Simply put: Far too many African Americans have died in questionable ways at the hands of cops. In their zeal to stop crime, had cops become too aggressive? Such a question was not only fair. As troublesome killings of African Americans mounted, such a question was necessary.
As the debate grew, the nation quickly realized that police reform had fallen into the same fate as calls to reform gun laws or immigration or even homelessness. It did not seem to matter that a troubling cycle of bad news continued to pile up. Nor did it matter that outrage from ordinary Americans piled up too. As the years passed, little was done. Political leaders were either too afraid or too unimaginative to push for change.
With police, however, a string of disturbing incidents — and victims’ names — became part of the modern lexicon. They include the recent deaths of Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. But there are scores of others, dating back to the 1990 shooting of 16-year-old Phillip Pannell in the supposedly racially progressive community of Teaneck, New Jersey.
'Raising the bar':Camden to perform city-wide inspections
In the wake of many of these incidents — and protests — the pattern was similar. First came anger. Then came the call to change policing. Then perhaps, some meaningful debates took place over what to do.
In the end, though, little was accomplished.
What’s especially stunning in recent debates is that most reasonable people, from all corners of America’s political spectrum, were horrified that so many African Americans continued to be killed by police officers. In recent years, many of the most tragic incidents were captured on cellphone video cameras. Even police officers joined the rest of the nation in raising critical questions about fellow cops involved in many killings.
But what to do? With that question, discussions often collapsed.
This brings us back to New Jersey.
The Garden State may qualify as one of the more unlikely places to nurture police reforms. Two decades ago, the State Police were cited for unwarranted traffic stops of African Americans on the New Jersey Turnpike.
What's more, despite its increasingly “blue” political leanings, New Jersey is hardly a progressive bastion of police reform. Many elected officials viewed police reform as a dangerous “third rail” of politics. Any political figure who demanded significant police reforms would likely be targeted for defeat at the ballot box by the powerful police unions who represent the more than 38,000 cops in New Jersey.
Such was the feeling until last summer.
Led by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the state took some gentle steps toward changing police tactics and culture. Grewal proposed a banning of chokeholds by police and “any similar tactics.” He also called for a new set of standards for use of deadly force. And he suggested that police to go through a licensing process similar to that by lawyers and other professions.
Police unions balked — but not to the point where they became serious obstacles to reform. By December, Grewal announced what his office described as a comprehensive package of policies that included the first major changes in two decades in the state’s use-of-force regulations.
Any sort of physical force — including deadly force — was banned except as a last resort and after officers attempted to de-escalate a confrontation. Also, police forces were urged to learn other, less-lethal methods as alternatives to firing their guns.
What’s more, officers were told they had a “duty to intervene” if they felt that one of their colleagues had overstepped in using any kind of force on a suspect. And if a suspect was injured, police now had a “duty to provide medical assistance."
This column continues below the video.
Grewal’s package included other meaningful reforms, including a demand that police departments send all officers for training in de-escalation techniques. But perhaps the most striking was Grewal’s decision to set up a statewide “use of force” internet portal where ordinary citizens could examine records of any incident in which an officer used force. Equally striking was the mandate that cops would be required to file a report within 24 hours after they used any kind of force on a suspect.
Praise poured in – and not just from advocates for police reform. Some of the most powerful police organizations in New Jersey, including the state chief’s association and the state police union praised the new policies.
So is this enough?
To his credit, Grewal said he is proud that New Jersey has emerged as a national model in police reform. But he wants to do more.
In an interview Friday, Grewal outlined an advanced training program for New Jersey officers that focuses on ways to de-escalate potentially violent situations. He said he feels "a sense of urgency" each time he sees a video of a questionable police killing of an African-American.
"It frustrates me when I see those videos," Grewal said. "We have a way to fix this. The playbook that we have developed in New Jersey could be a national model."
It needs to be said here that cops perform extraordinarily difficult tasks. Imagine being alone and having to approach a car with darkened windows at night that you pulled over because it was speeding. Or imagine being told by a township mayor that you had to increase the number of traffic tickets you hand out so the municipal budget can be balanced. Or imagine having to try to calm down a drug addict on a bender. Or a husband and wife in the midst of a vicious fight. Or a criminal who may or may not have a gun in his pocket.
To say this kind of work is not easy is an understatement.
But after years for demands for police reform, something is afoot in New Jersey – and perhaps across the rest of America.
The nation has watched too many videos of too many questionable killings.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.