New Jersey “lags behind the pack” of other states in shining light on police misconduct, the state’s attorney general acknowledged Wednesday during a legislative hearing on law enforcement reform, urging lawmakers to bring the Garden State’s secrecy laws in line with other states.
“We are one of a shrinking number of states where police disciplinary records remain shrouded in secrecy, virtually never seeing the light of day,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.
“In recent months, I have come to recognize that our policy isn’t just bad for public trust, it’s bad for public safety.”
It was a remarkable turnaround for the Attorney General’s Office, which for years has fought in court to prevent the disclosure of documents ranging from overtime to disciplinary records.
Grewal, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in 2018, said the protests and unrest around the country in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd of Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky have shown him more must be done to ensure public trust in law enforcement.
The attorney general noted a host of reforms he’s ushered in, from requiring implicit bias training statewide and setting up a conviction review unit to banning chokeholds in most circumstances.
Grewal said in coming weeks he will be “reconsidering” his office’s position in two long-running legal cases: One over how much power Newark’s civilian oversight board is legally entitled to, and another over the internal affairs records of Philip Seidle, a former Neptune police sergeant who killed his wife in 2015 in front of fellow police officers during a standoff.
His comments came at the head of a six-hour hearing in the Statehouse Annex in Trenton where lawmakers took testimony from current and former police leaders, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, clergy, a Black Lives Matter organizer and representatives of the state’s police unions, among others.
Those testifying called for increased community policing, diversifying the state’s police ranks, improving training, licensing cops and giving the public more access to internal affairs files.
“Most of our residents want police officers,” Baraka told the committee. “They want police officers in our neighborhoods, they want safety, they want security.
“What they don’t want is their children shot to death in front of recreation centers, or people choked to death for selling cigarettes or people with their knee on your neck until you die for $20.”
No legislation was advanced during the hearing, but several measures have already been introduced in the Senate and Assembly.
One bill (S2656) would make police internal affairs files public records, as they are in several other states including Florida, Arizona and New York.
Another (A4392) significantly increases the self-defense training requirements for police officers from 40 hours to 148 hours, with an emphasis on deescalating violent encounters.
A third (S685) would allow local, county and regional departments to enact five-year residency requirements for police and firefighters.
“We’ve learned a lot, we can learn a lot more and then we can decide what can be done legislatively,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, who chairs the committee.
Union officials who testified at the hearing, while expressing a willingness to help root out problem police officers, balked at many of the proposals.
Several unions have sued to block Grewal’s office from identifying officers subject to “major discipline,” a broad category of misconduct that the unions argue would embarrass officers and harm their families over minor things like uniform infractions and tardiness.
State Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan told the committee that disclosure should be limited to officers who commit egregious offenses like bigotry or excessive force.
“If you want to expose any officer who violated the public trust in the last 50 years, I’ll support it,” Colligan said. “But if you want to expose officers that were merely given major discipline for minor offenses — alcohol abuse, possibly a domestic violence incident — you’re going to cause harm to those officers for the rest of their careers.”
Colligan blamed “forces in the media and the government” that treat police “all as potential criminals,” for the unrest across the country, saying it was hurting morale among police.
“I have not seen officers more dejected than I do today,” he said.
Zellie Thomas, a Paterson school teacher and organizer for a local Black Lives Matter group, said the demonstrations around the country were part of a life-or-death movement for many protesters.
“We are protesting police violence that is disproportionately killing black people in the midst of a pandemic that’s also disproportionately killing black people,” he said. “We, in a sense, are outside risking our lives in order to save lives.”
He told lawmakers that over-policing in black and brown communities had drained resources away from education and public health programs, encouraging them to divert resources to community programs.
“Police violence will only end when we end what is known as policing,” he said.