TRENTON -- Amid near-daily protests in cities across the United States over police use of force, New Jersey's attorney general on Wednesday directed officers from the more than 500 agencies in the state to undergo training in racial bias and de-escalating violent encounters.
The classes, meant to improve community relations and prevent fatal police shootings, will be an annual requirement, akin to the continuing legal education lawyers receive, Attorney General Christopher Porrino told NJ Advance Media.
On Wednesday, Porrino issued a directive creating the Community-Law Enforcement Affirmative Relations (CLEAR) Continuing Education Institute, based at the state Division of Criminal Justice, and establishing a system of mandatory training.
The new program follows Gov. Chris Christie's signing of a bill in August requiring the police officers to receive cultural diversity training.
Porrino said New Jersey already "has great police officers and strong police training programs," but the mandate presented a chance to create a uniform system that would ensure every officer in the state got the same training.
Police use of force has been at the forefront of the national conversation for more than a year, becoming a topic in presidential debates and spurring national news coverage of Black Lives Matter protests over shootings in Missouri, Staten Island and here in New Jersey.
In his directive, the attorney general acknowledged that scrutiny created "an opportunity, and responsibility, for my office to re-examine (New Jersey's) policies concerning the law enforcement decision to use deadly force and the manner in which police-involved shootings are investigated."
That re-examination led to several reforms last summer, including new rules for the use of body cameras and conducting police shooting investigations, intended to strengthen public confidence in such cases.
Police reform advocates have applauded the changes, though the Attorney General's Office has been criticized over transparency issues, including its refusal to release the names of officers involved in deadly shootings as well as body and dashboard camera footage from shooting scenes.
The Garden State also has a troubled history with regards to policing and race.
Two of its largest law enforcement agencies have been under federal monitoring for discriminatory policing — the State Police from 1999 to 2009, and more recently the Newark Police Department, which entered into an oversight agreement with the Department of Justice last year.
A report from the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union last year also found racial disparity in low-level arrests in several cities and towns across the state.
Porrino, who was appointed by Christie in June, said in an interview that the idea for a statewide institute started during his first meeting with New Jersey's 21 county prosecutors, each of whom described grappling with meeting public demands for better training.
"Can't we just do this?" Porrino recalled asking his colleagues. "Why don't we standardize it and make it mandatory for everybody?"
Currently, the training of police recruits is regulated through the Police Training Commission, the directive notes. But in-service training for police officers after they are sworn in is often left up to the individual agencies and county prosecutors, creating a patchwork of programs.
That means there is "no uniform statewide policy to ensure that after graduating from a police academy, officers participate in education programs to help them deal with the challenges they will confront as the policing environment changes around them," Porrino wrote.
Under the new directive, every police officer in the state will be required to complete five hours of continuing education by the end of 2017, and at least three hours a year after that. Most of the courses will be offered online.
A list of topics covered provided by the Attorney General's Office include: de-escalation techniques; cultural diversity awareness; racial profiling; implicit bias; conflict resolution; communications skills; crisis intervention training and responding to persons with special needs, including mental health issues; and investigating bias crimes.
Melvin Warren, the criminal justice chairman for the state chapter of the NAACP, called the new directive a step "in a direction toward transparency and accountability from the police."
"That can bring trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve," he said.
While the directive focuses primarily on the training police officers receive, it also endorses a novel program aimed at community leaders and civil rights advocates. It calls for the expansion of "virtual firearms" exercises, in which civilians participate in a use-of-force simulation meant to show them the dangers and stress police officers face in deadly encounters.
Such programs have been used by county prosecutors around the state, giving members of the clergy and other groups often leading protests against police violence a sense of what it's like for officers confronted with the question of whether to use fatal force.
Warren, of the NAACP, said such cooperation between law enforcement and community leaders is crucial.
"We're living in a different era right now," he said. "The community and the police have to work together because both parties need each other."