NJ cops might need license, new physical test after Asbury Park Press investigation

Published by the USA Today Network on Oct. 3, 2019.

New Jersey officials are considering two sweeping changes in law enforcement oversight that would address problems exposed by the Asbury Park Press’ ongoing investigation of rogue cops and police accountability.

Police in New Jersey could be required to obtain a law-enforcement license, like officers in nearly every other state, officials discussed Wednesday at the Police Training Commission in Trenton.

The possible change follows reporting by the Press and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey that showed the high cost of slack oversight of police officers in New Jersey.

New Jersey is one of four states that don’t license police officers, the way professionals like doctors and barbers are licensed. Currently, there is no way to stop a cop who violated their oath from getting a job in another department or state.

Because there is no licensing system, New Jersey cannot revoke the license of a bad cop and “decertify” the officer to keep them out of the profession the way most other states can.

Tom Eicher, the director of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability — a branch of the office of the state’s top cop, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal — attended the Wednesday meeting of the commission, the group that proposes training rules for cops.

Eicher told the commission that a working group Grewal created to examine police training is looking at “a possible certification or licensing regimen down the road.” 

After the meeting, Eicher said licensure is “on the table,” though they aren’t definitely pursuing it. 

“Different states do it differently, we’d have to look at what our law permits,” he said.

Kevin Lyons, a representative on the commission from the state’s largest police union, said the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association “can’t commit to a model until we have a chance to review the details.”

He was supportive of another issue also discussed Wednesday, conducting physical testing of police recruits before they go into the academy.

“We’re 100 percent behind that,” Lyons said.

That proposed change comes after the Network exposed the disparity between men and women failing police academy physical tests.

The Police Training Commission considered a pre-academy test in the past, paying an estimated $300,000 for a consultant to develop a battery of exercises to challenge recruits. But the commission put that test on hold based on legal advice that pointed them to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the Pennsylvania State Police.

The lawsuit claimed a pre-academy physical test created an improper disparity between men and women. So instead, the New Jersey commission created a test that recruits face during their first weeks at the academy, which failed women far more often than men, the Network found.

The state commission decided the previous legal advice they got was “disingenuous,” according to Vice Chairman James Sharrock. The commission has asked for a new legal opinion on a pre-academy test, which it will consider further at its next meeting scheduled for December. There could also be modifications made to the exercises recruits are required to pass.

“I want to come to an equitable solution that’s fair to everybody so we can move on,” Sharrock said, later stressing he’s open to addressing the disparity.

A pre-academy test would likely save tax dollars that are now spent on the process of hiring recruits who flunk the physical test in their first weeks of police training, as the Network reported.

It’s unclear whether a pre-academy physical test would fix another issue identified by the the Network: women failed up to 13 times as often as men under the current physical testing rules.

But fixing the disparity may not be the point of the possible rule change, in the eyes of the 16-member commission, which has one woman.

“I don’t think the point is to address the disparity, I think the point is to eliminate people that are not prepared to enter a police academy,” Sharrock said.