NJ combats bad cops with sweeping rule changes after APP reporting

By Andrew Ford. Published Dec. 4, 2019.

NEWARK – New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued sweeping police oversight rule changes Wednesday, including the development of a police licensing system and a reform to better track credibility issues with witnesses – including cops. The changes address multiple problems in New Jersey policing exposed by the Asbury Park Press, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK – New Jersey.

Grewal released five directives dictating new police rules and three letters outlining his expectations from other law enforcement entities bound to follow his directions.

“Our goals are simple: We want to provide additional support for the 99 percent of police officers who do their jobs, day in and day out, with integrity and with distinction,” Grewal said at news conference, flanked by law enforcement leaders. “At the same time we want to root out those small number of cops who engage in misconduct, who dishonor their colleagues and who diminish the great work that the men and women behind me and across our state do on a daily basis.” 

The Attorney General’s “Excellence in Policing” initiative makes numerous police accountability reforms. Changes include: 

  • Track known police officer credibility issues – Grewal issued a directive to standardize each of the state’s 21 county prosecutors’ practices on gathering “exculpatory and impeachment evidence” – material that would help a defendant’s case or undermine a state’s witness’ credibility. The Network exposed gaps in how departments and prosecutors’ offices track troubled cops. In one report, the Network informed one prosecutor’s office that a cop it fought to fire was still out making arrests. In another instance, the Network showed how a man’s life was ruined by an allegation made by a cop found to have lied. Grewal’s new policy issues guidance about the kind of material that could be disclosed by prosecutors, like prior inconsistent statements by a witness, but stops short of mandating such disclosures. The rule applies to all state witnesses, not just cops.
  • Work toward licensing cops – In a letter, Grewal asked the state’s Police Training Commission to study whether New Jersey should license police officers, noting that New Jersey is one of the few states without licensing for police, a lapse raised repeatedly in the Network’s investigative series, The Shield and follow up stories. That report is due by June and is supposed to address the pros and cons of licensing, how to best design a licensing system, how to protect officers’ rights and what resources would be needed to license New Jersey’s cops.
  • Study ways to improve police training – Grewal also asked the PTC to prepare a report on ways to update police training. They’re tasked with considering revisions to recruit standards and scrutinizing ways to train officers before they enter the academy. That follows Network reporting that a physical fitness rule change prompted a spike in the rate of women recruits failing police academies, up to 13 times as often as men. 
  • Stop bad cops from job-hopping – A new policy requires the transfer of an officer’s secret internal affairs file when the officer applies to a new department, a move aimed at giving potential employers a complete look at a cop’s past. This change does part of the job of an Assembly bill inspired by reporting by the Network, which found at least 68 officers with disciplinary issues were allowed to resign and three of them moved on to new jobs in law enforcement. Grewal’s new rule “strongly discouraged” the use of non-disclosure agreements, but allows agencies to keep documents hidden if they’re subject to such an agreement, which is commonly part of a lawsuit settlement, as the Network revealed.
  • Keep an eye on municipal prosecutors – Grewal increased oversight of municipal prosecutors, requiring that they register with the Division of Criminal Justice, a branch of his office. The Network exposed flaws in New Jersey’s municipal court system in 2016.
  • Let people see more videos of police actions – Grewal issued a directive ordering the release of videos – when requested – related to incidents in which police use deadly force or when a citizen is seriously injured or killed. The new rule goes beyond police body camera and dash camera recordings, calling for the release of surveillance video or witness smartphone shots. 
  • Revamp tracking of police use of force – In a letter, Grewal announced six police departments – Bridgeton, Dover, Linden, Millville, Paterson, and South Brunswick – will participate in a pilot program to improve data collection on police use of force in an effort to design a new system to track use of force statewide. That change follows reporting by NJ.com on police use of force over the years. 

“I think that this excellence in policing initiative, the various facets of it, are just going to keep New Jersey and all of our law enforcement agencies as premier law enforcement agencies,” said Colonel Patrick Callahan, head of the New Jersey State Police. 

James Sharrock, vice chairman of the Police Training Commission, applauded the changes, which include a commitment to increase the commission’s funding.

“I think they’re very progressive,” Sharrock said of Grewal’s changes. “I think they’re at least on a way to solving some of the problems. Extremely happy with the increased staffing. The licensing issue, I represent the rank and file, so I have to see how the people in the street take this. I just have to digest that and try to get some feedback from them.” Pat Colligan, president of the state’s largest police union, didn’t respond to request seeking comment.