N.J. Will Track Police Use Of Force, Require Licensing Cops, AG Says As Protests Roil Nation

New Jersey will soon launch a statewide database of police use of force and create a licensing system for police officers amid national protests over police violence, the state’s top law enforcement official said Tuesday.

The state will also update its police use of force policy for the first time in nearly 20 years, create a pilot program for “crisis intervention” training for New Jersey officers and establish a new team within the state Division on Civil Rights to respond to police shootings and other problems, according to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

The announcement followed days of protests in New Jersey and around the country in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“To the thousands of New Jerseyans who assembled peacefully this week, let me be clear: We hear you, we see you, we respect you," Grewal said at a Tuesday news briefing in Trenton. "We share your anger and we share your commitment to change.”

Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck until he stopped breathing. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with murder, but many have called on Minneapolis officials to charge the other three officers on the scene who did not intervene. Those officers have been fired from the Minneapolis police department, though they have not been charged criminally.

Outrage over the incident has sparked protests in cities around the U.S. — including here in the Garden State, which has seen its share of clashes between police and the communities they serve.

Demonstrations in Newark and Camden remained largely peaceful, while protests in Trenton and Atlantic City took violent turns. In Asbury Park on Monday night, at least a dozen people were arrested, including an Asbury Park Press reporter, for failing to disperse after hours of peaceful protest. The charge against the reporter was dismissed.

Appearing alongside Gov. Phil Murphy at a daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, Grewal said the demonstrations gave increased urgency to measures that have been in the works for several years in the Garden State.

In late 2018, NJ Advance Media published The Force Report, a statewide database of police use of force records that showed major racial disparities in how and when New Jersey police officers used force against suspects. The state last updated its police use of force policy in 2001.

“A lot has changed in policing over the last 20 years," Grewal said Tuesday, adding that he intended to have an overhaul in place by the end of the year.

In the wake of the Force Report, state authorities launched a pilot program to track police use of force at a handful of departments, aiming to create a database modeled after the one produced by the news organization. Starting July 1, Grewal said, the database will be open to all police agencies in the state.

State authorities have previously said they intend to create a public database of police use of force similar to the Force Report, but Grewal’s announcement did not make clear what data would become public and when.

Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for Grewal, said in an email Tuesday evening the office’s plan is "to provide public access to the database during a later phase of the project.

“Right now, our primary goal is to onboard as many police departments as possible.”

A series of Asbury Park Press investigations also raised questions about the quality of internal affairs investigations and highlighted the fact that New Jersey is among just a few states that does not require police officers to obtain licenses.

Now facing unprecedented civil unrest, state authorities are pledging to address those issues.

“Just as we license doctors, nurses, lawyers, and hundreds of other police professions. We must ensure all officers meet a baseline level of professionalism," the attorney general said Tuesday. "We must ensure that those who cannot meet this standard, cannot work in New Jersey.”

Grewal noted a state panel had been studying the issue and conceded New Jersey lags at least 43 other states in having a licensing program for law enforcement officers. He said all officers in the state will be required to participate in the program.

“We will be building from the ground up through our police training commission,” he said.

Crisis intervention training aims to prepare officers to “respond to situations involving individuals with mental health issues,” the attorney general said, but is not provided to many New Jersey departments.

A pilot program will give such training to police in Paterson, Trenton, Atlantic City and Millville, as well as state troopers assigned to the New Jersey Statehouse, Grewal said.

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