Were it not for a 17-year-old witness recording video on her cell phone, the world might not have had as clear of a picture of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

A call for the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General to issue a statewide First Amendment policy on police interactions with recording bystanders is just one of the "deep investments" recommended in "Refunding Communities: A Pathway Forward to Real Public Safety," a report released last week by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Associate counsel Brooke Lewis said an annual $115 billion nationwide police budget takes away from other community resources, so while New Jersey still needs to focus on accountable policing, preventing the need to involve law enforcement in certain situations in the first place may be a more effective strategy.

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"To create real public safety, we're calling on New Jersey to refund communities through investing in both community responders and community resources," Lewis said. "Communities all over the country, including here in New Jersey, want to rethink public safety, and I think it's clear that we agree that police are called to respond to situations that are likely better handled by other professionals."

Of particular concern, Lewis said people with severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter, so behavioral health pilot programs like ones she said have had success in New York, Colorado, and Oregon are being encouraged.

All that goes hand in hand, she said, with an increased commitment to affordable and available housing.

"People experiencing behavioral health challenges can struggle to find stable housing, which then leaves them exposed to repeated contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system," Lewis said.

Grassroots groups like the Newark Community Street Team, Paterson Healing Collective, and Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition are addressing some of these issues, according to Lewis, but she said further legislation akin to that which recently allotted for restorative justice hubs in several New Jersey cities needs to be passed, and funded.

"We certainly get examples for ways that have been successful in other places on how to do that, but at the end of the day, it's got to start with the community and what works for each individual community," Lewis said.

As advocates begin to see better public safety outcomes due to these and other measures, Lewis said, that's when they will know New Jersey's communities are changing and becoming safer for all.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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