Advocacy groups press N.J. lawmakers to take action on police reform

With most policy changes coming through executive orders, N.J. social justice groups are urging the Legislature to take up bills to hold law enforcement accountable.

Protesters march during a Black Lives Matter rally

Protesters march during a Black Lives Matter rally in Fort Lee, N.J., on Friday, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Pablo Salinas)

Social justice advocacy groups in New Jersey are renewing their calls for the state to pass meaningful police reform, arguing state lawmakers haven’t done enough to hold police accountable for excessive use of force and officer misconduct.

Groups like the ACLU of New Jersey said state lawmakers have been all talk and little action since the days following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota in 2020.

“Days, weeks, and months after the murder of George Floyd, we saw lawmakers at every level, from the bottom to the top of the state, talk about needing reform, and those words [have] just melted away,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

The ACLU-NJ is part of a statewide coalition that lobbies for legislation to address police brutality and abuse of power.

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It has thrown its support behind a measure that would allow municipalities to create civilian review boards with subpoena power. Another would make police disciplinary records public by law, which is currently required by executive order from the state’s Attorney General’s Office.

Legislators in both houses have not taken action on either bill, and with only one voting session left, it’s unlikely lawmakers will garner enough support to pass these measures in the lame-duck session.

“We won’t let up,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), who is chair of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus.

She said her colleagues in the caucus have been working to pass comprehensive police reform for years, even before Floyd’s murder.

“We put forth significant legislation … Having a strong Democratic governor, a number of those bills moved to executive order,” Sumter said.

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In 2020, the state Attorney General’s Office used executive power to revise the state’s use of force policy, banning the use of chokeholds, and moved to create a public database of officer misconduct.

The new use of force policy, which is set to take effect on Friday, prohibits police from using deadly force except as a last resort and emphasizes de-escalation techniques. Starting in August, the state’s more than 500 law enforcement agencies were required to comply with an executive order to release police disciplinary records.

Legislators did recently pass a bill allowing officers to review body camera footage before creating a police report. (The state has required all police departments to equip officers with body-worn cameras since June.)

While law enforcement argues this will create more accurate accounts of interactions with citizens, opponents like Sinha said it could lead police to omit information not shown on camera.

“Police lobbyists are out there making sure that we maintain the status quo, and that we don’t allow for reforming accountability,” Sinha said. “They want to make sure that they can defend their own even in the most egregious of circumstances of violence or misconduct by police officers.”

The New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment.

When the Assembly voted on that bill last week, Sumter abstained.

She said her decision came after she had conversations with members of law enforcement.

Despite being met with “resistance” over the years, Sumter said the state had made some progress on criminal justice reform, thanks to a push from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration. She hopes state lawmakers can come together to codify some of the policies currently mandated by the Attorney General’s Office.

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