New Jersey is moving forward on licensing cops

By Andrew Ford. Published June 24, 2020.

The New Jersey Police Training Commission unanimously voted Wednesday morning to approve a report on how the state could license police officers, bringing New Jersey closer to enacting a police accountability standard employed by nearly every other state. 

“Licensure will establish uniform standards of police conduct that will allow New Jersey to monitor and share information about officers who violate those standards,” a draft of the report obtained by the Asbury Park Press shows.

This report will now be reviewed by stakeholders and could be revised, according to James Sharrock, vice chairman of the Police Training Commission. Eventually, state legislators could consider addressing police licensing by drafting a law that would have to be signed by the governor.

The report calls for the establishment of a state agency to monitor standards for police conduct and ensure uniformity in the discipline of cops.

“To that end, the licensure of police officers through a designated State agency will help ensure that an officer who violates the standards of professional conduct will have their license revoked so that they can no longer work in the State as an officer,” the report shows.

The copy of the report obtained by the Press lays out statistics for the reasons other states can revoke a cop’s license, but doesn’t specify the reasons New Jersey would revoke a license. Those reasons are a work in progress, according to Sharrock, vice chairman of the commission.

The report stresses the need for due process when revoking a license and says an officer should be able to appeal. The report lays out a five-step action plan that involves talking to stakeholders – including two of the state’s police unions – enacting legislation, crafting regulations, hiring new staff and issuing licenses to the more than 35,000 officers in New Jersey. 

A Woodlynne police officer recently made headlines after he was charged in connection to the accusation that he pepper-sprayed people “without provocation.” The officer was working at his ninth department, a fact that caught the eye of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who called for licensing cops in a tweet. 

In a rare move, Grewal personally attended the online meeting of the Police Training Commission Wednesday to vote in favor of the report on licensing and speak before the commission, which is responsible for making training rules for New Jersey police officers and overseeing police academies. In December, Grewal asked the commission to draft the report, which was delayed due to coronavirus. 

“With today’s vote, I think we take a big step forward in establishing a baseline level of professionalism that we expect from our state’s law enforcement officers and we continue the hard work that we’ve been doing for years in this state to create a culture of professionalism, transparency and accountability among our state’s law enforcement officers,” Grewal told the commission members gathered online through their webcams.

The representative on the commission for New Jersey’s largest police union voted in favor of the licensing plan, though he expressed concerns in a statement he read to the commission.

“Like I’ve said from the beginning, the devil’s in the details,” said Kevin Lyons, who represents The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association. He objected to the idea of asking cops to pay a fee to get their license and stressed the importance of due process when revoking a cop’s license.

“…Some officers may be rehabilitated from some offenses,” he said. 

The commission also approved a proposal to enhance training for cops on topics including de-escalating situations, interacting with people in crisis, interpersonal communication, and cultural diversity. 

Highlighted by the publication of Protecting the Shield in January 2018, the Press has reported for years on New Jersey’s police accountability gaps, pressing top law enforcement officials about why New Jersey stands nearly alone in the nation for failing to license police officers.

This year, the Press is partnered with the national investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica to dig deeper into New Jersey policing issues.