NJ police brutality: State targets bad cops after Press investigation

By Andrew Ford
 Published March 20, 2018 by the Asbury Park Press.

Following an Asbury Park Press investigation into police brutality that exposed the lack of oversight of rogue cops, the state attorney general Tuesday issued sweeping new guidelines to weed out drug-abusing cops and those who flout the law.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued two directives for every police department in the state. The first directive orders mandatory, random drug testing in every department and the second directive sets up an “early warning” system to identify bad cops before they injure or kill residents. Both are posted at the bottom of this story.

Both orders come on the heels of the Press’ “Protecting the Shield” series in January that exposed the lack of drug testing in more than 100 departments and showed limited oversight of violent cops across the state.

“I thought the article shines a light on issues that the public should be aware of,” Grewal said, noting that they are issues law enforcement has “been contending with for some time.”

Also, Grewal said his office is examining additional improvements to New Jersey’s system for police accountability, including a review of how departments conduct internal affairs investigations and state licensing of police officers. New Jersey is just one of five states that has no way to bar a rogue cop from law enforcement short of a criminal conviction.

“Protecting the Shield” identified more than $42 million in taxpayer funds spent to settle lawsuits alleging police misconduct, including 19 deaths and 131 injuries.

“I think these two directives are directly aimed at identifying problematic behavior in law enforcement officers before that behavior escalates to the point where there might be potential litigation, where an officer engages in some sort of problematic behavior with a civilian,” Grewal said, referring to the orders he issued Tuesday.

“So, I think we have to remember, we have 30-plus thousand officers in the state, nearly 9 million people, clearly there are bad interactions and there are bad actors,” Grewal added. “But they’re few and far between. But we’re committed to identifying them and making sure that their behavior doesn’t escalate to the point where it leads to that next piece of litigation, that next, you know, sort of tragic consequence that you’ve identified in some of your reporting.”

Lawmakers contacted Tuesday said they supported Grewal’s mandates.

“These individuals are trusted with our public safety and have a large responsibility in the communities and towns and jurisdictions where they work, so a drug testing policy is proper. That’s number one,” said Deputy Assembly Speaker Gordon M. Johnson, D-Bergen, a former law enforcement officer.

Johnson also spoke highly of the early warning system.

“That can only put us in the right direction when it comes to accountability for police behavior in the streets, and that will then allow the public to feel that they do have a resource, a place to go if they feel that they’ve been mistreated by a police officer, in an interaction with a police officer,” Johnson said.

Longtime Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Morris, noted the challenges of the profession and the importance of oversight.

“It’s stressful and significantly important to the primary reason governments are put together to begin with and that’s public safety,” McKeon said. “And to be certain that officers who are so stressed are in the best position to serve the public, it just makes sense.”

Officer licensing considered

New Jersey has no process for revoking the license of a police officer found unfit to serve, similar to the way a doctor or lawyer can be banned from their professions.

“Right now, we’re considering many options that we believe can make the system stronger,” Grewal said. “A licensing system that other states employ is something that we’re looking at. But you should know that we’re committed to making the system stronger, to building trust. And we’re looking at all means to do that.”

The new statewide random drug testing policy requires that at least 10 percent of a department’s police officers are tested each time. All New Jersey police departments will be required to randomly test officers at least once in 2018, then twice annually each following year.

The early warning system establishes a minimum of 14 potential issues with police officer performance that departments will track. If these issues with an officer are spotted three times in a year, a supervisor will develop remedial measures for the officer. The department will also notify the county prosecutor’s office of the officer’s name, the nature of the issues and the plan to fix those issues.

A chief can choose to track more police performance issues, but at a minimum, departments will look for:

  • Internal affairs complaints against an officer
  • Civil actions filed against an officer
  • Criminal investigations or criminal complaints against an officer
  • Excessive or unreasonable use of force
  • Domestic violence investigations in which an officer is a subject
  • The arrest of an officer including driving under the influence
  • Sexual harassment claims against the officer
  • Car crashes in which the officer was at fault
  • A positive drug test
  • Arrests by an officer that are rejected or dismissed by a court
  • Cases in which evidence obtained by an officer is suppressed by a court
  • Insubordination
  • Neglect of duty
  • Unexcused absences

If an officer is subject to the early warning system review, their department is required to tell that to future employers if the officer seeks work with another agency.

“I’m a firm believer that law enforcement works best when there’s trust and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Grewal said, noting that trust is primarily established through “transparency and accountability.”

Asked about making available to the public the sustained findings of an internal affairs investigation, Grewal described the broad scope of his office’s efforts.

“…These first three directives are part of an ongoing review process and we are in the process of reviewing our AG’s IA (internal affairs) guidelines,” Grewal said. “And so we’re looking at all options there as well to make the system more transparent and accountable.”

Grewal’s first directive after taking office this year – still pending review by the state supreme court’s ethics committee – would make public video recordings depicting police use of deadly force.

“These directives are by no means the end of the process for us,” Grewal said. “We’re engaged in looking at other areas in which we can improve trust, improve transparency and improve accountability.”