NJ attorney general opposes change to police shooting probes
TRENTON — Despite rare testimony in opposition from the state’s attorney general, an Assembly committee this week endorsed a plan to require the state, not county prosecutors, to handle all cases when a person dies as a result of a police shooting or while in custody.
The bill is one vote from Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after Monday’s endorsement by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. But the possibility of changes through amendments, or perhaps later a conditional veto, seemed to increase after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal testified against it.
Grewal said the bill would undermine efforts that have already been made to improve community relations with police. He said the system now in place, which comes from directives issued by past attorneys general in 2006 and 2015, is effective and could be put into law.
“This bill may in the end undermine public trust in law enforcement and will replace a system that already does everything that the sponsors seek to accomplish and more,” Grewal said. “It would send a troubling message to the public that we cannot trust our prosecutors and their professional staffs to competently and impartially perform one of the most significant functions of their offices.”
Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-Essex, said the bill absolutely does not say police and prosecutors can’t be trusted.
“This bill is needed because like every institution where human interaction is at the forefront, there is a susceptible element of perceived corruption that can exist,” Timberlake said.
Grewal said state prosecutors can already take over any investigation into police shootings. Last year, the state handled four of 42 such shootings, including one of the 13 fatalities. The state can also assign an investigation to a different county if it believes there is a conflict or a perception of one.
“If the Legislature sends a message that we cannot trust our prosecutors to act with integrity on the most visible and critical of cases, we cannot expect the public to view their ability to handle matters of less gravity and visibility with anything but skepticism and mistrust,” Grewal said.
Rob Nixon, director of government affairs for the New Jersey State PBA, said county prosecutors are capable of handling fatal shootings.
“I know it’s not your intent to suggest that the police can’t police themselves, and I know that you care for law enforcement. But the message that this bill is sending is that we can’t be trusted,” Nixon said.
But backers of the bill say there’s too close a relationship between local police and county prosecutors, which causes fear of some sort of bias.
“The idea that this bill would diminish trust in officers – I’m here to say that based on those that I have gathered around and stood with and prayed for that there already is a lack of trust in the officers,” said the Rev. Carmine Pernini of Zion Lutheran Church in Rahway.
“We are not in any way saying that your local prosecutors are not competent enough to conduct these investigations,” said Safeer Quraishi, administrative director for the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “I’m saying that they may just not be doing them correctly in their own backyard.”
The Senate passed S1036/A3115 in March by a 26-11 vote.
Last session, the proposal was passed 22-12 by the Senate and 49-21 by the Assembly. It was pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, meaning he chose not to act on it as his term expired.