Senators: Don’t let counties investigate their own deadly police shootings
Senate Democrats plan to push to shift investigations of fatal shootings by New Jersey police officers from county prosecutors to a special state prosecutor, in the hopes of ensuring the credibility of the case by minimizing a chance for favoritism.
The introduction of the bill follows recent high-profile shootings of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, as well as retaliatory mass shootings of police by black men in Texas and Louisiana.
“There’s a lack of trust, to a point that I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “And we’ve got to bring it back because we can’t have people shooting police officers and we can’t have people of color out being shot in the middle of the streets, either.”
There are also, at any time, several police-involved shootings being investigated in New Jersey. Authorities are investigating an off-duty Newark officer's shooting of an unarmed man in a Union Township barfight — a case New Jersey 101.5 has learned is likely headed to a grand jury. SWAT team members shot and killed a former NYPD lieutenant whose wife said he was acting erratically while armed with his gun; that deadly shooting remains under investigation as well.
Democratic lawmakers announced the bill at a recent Statehouse news conference flanked by representatives from civil-rights organizations.
The bill would be “historic and huge victory” in the push for police accountability, though still not sufficient, said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.
“In a democracy, everyone’s entitled to equal protection under the law,” Smith said. “However, when a police officer crosses the line and appears to use excessive force, the criminal justice system often fails to hold that officer accountable. That must change.”
“This special prosecutor legislation is great. But when we get the need of that special prosecutor, it’s because someone has been shot or killed,” he said. “So perhaps if we train and retrain and train again on de-escalation, we might be able to stop some other father, sister and somebody’s brother from standing in front of a casket.”
The proposal would apply to deaths that occur in encounters with police officers acting in their official capacity or while in custody. The state prosecutor would have to bring the case to a grand jury in a county other than where the shooting occurred.
“People in the community will know that they’re going to be able to get a just as well as a fair hearing so that it will not be covered up,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.
A year ago, the Office of the Attorney General issued a directive requiring county prosecutors, rather than local police, to handle investigations of police officers’ use of force. If prosecutors opt not to take a case to a grand jury, they must explain why in a report to state prosecutors.
Senators took pains to say their plan isn’t an indictment of police officers.
“Being a police officer is not an easy task,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson. “However, somewhere along the way there has been a great divide that is taking place between what police officers are doing and what our residents are doing. We now have a great misunderstanding and a feeling that we cannot trust each other. We have to do whatever is necessary to bridge that gap.”
“This is not an attack on police officers. It is far from that. It’s just ensuring people that they get justice when something happens,” Sweeney said.
The political sensitivity of a bill affecting police investigations, particularly after a mass shootings directed specifically at police, would certainly complicate passage of the bill.
The New Jersey Police Benevolent Association didn’t respond to requests for comment on the bill, though the union opposed an earlier version of the plan in May 2015, arguing that county prosecutors aren’t hesitant to bring charges and saying a state-level prosecutor would slow down investigations.
“Listen, this is not going to be by any means an easy task,” Sweeney said. “If it was, you would have a bill like this is every state in the country.”
“This is a bill that builds legitimacy in policing,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “It’s a bill that is a good government bill that strengthens people’s willingness to trust the police and trust the system.”
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