Bill Would Require Independent Investigations When Deaths Occur As The Result of Law Enforcement Actions
TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Shirley Turner and Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham today announced the introduction of legislation that would require independent investigations of police-involved fatalities.
The bill would establish an independent investigation into deaths by police officers during official duty to be handled by the Attorney General’s Office, helping to ensure the integrity and credibility of the criminal justice system when law enforcement officials are involved in fatal encounters while on duty, Senator Sweeney said.
“The shooting deaths in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas are the most recent deadly encounters that have traumatized these cities and further exposed a divide in this country between law enforcement and minority communities,” said Senator Sweeney. “We have a real problem when a large portion of society feels as if the criminal justice system is not protecting them with equal justice. We have a trust issue between law enforcement and our minority communities that erodes the trust and confidence that is so important to the justice system and American society.”
This bill provides that, whenever a death occurs during an encounter with a police officer or other law enforcement official or when the subject is in custody when the officer is acting in the performance of their duties, the Attorney General, rather than the county prosecutor, would conduct any resulting investigation or criminal action. The Attorney General would present evidence concerning the officer’s action to a state or county grand jury in a county and court outside of where the death occurred. Any resulting legal actions would also be pursued in the outside jurisdiction.
The bill is sponsored by Senator Sweeney, Senator Ronald L. Rice and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
“The purpose of this bill is to provide for an independent investigation into deaths resulting from official police action by ensuring a prosecutor and court that are not associated with the county in which the death occurred,” said Senator Cunningham, a cosponsor of the bill. “An independent prosecutor will have more trust and credibility and will help remove any conflict of interest.”
The Democratic senators were joined in support by a number of civil justice organizations, including Richard Smith, president of the NAACP; Reva Foster of the Black Issues Convention; Ari Rosmarin from the ACLU; Archange Antione, representing the president of the Central New Jersey Chapter of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; Pastor David Ford and Father Jack Martin, both from the NJ Clergy Coalition for Justice.
The bill would have the Attorney General or designee present evidence concerning the officer’s action to a county or state grand jury, either one regularly impaneled or requested to be impaneled for the case. The grand jury would determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer. Any further investigation, criminal action or proceeding would then be conducted just like any other case, but they would have to be handled in a court and a county other than where the death occurred.
“We have seen a great deal of pain around this country in recent weeks. It is clear that we have to take steps together to forge better relationships between law enforcement and the community, and I am committed to continuing my ongoing effort to do that,” said Senator Turner. “This issue is straightforward. There is no question the investigation of a police-involved fatal shooting should be conducted by an independent entity, and taken out of the hands of local officials. This is critical to creating trust around the investigation and part of what must be a broader effort to improve confidence in law enforcement.”
“The issues that have existed in urban areas and in communities of color for far too long can no longer be ignored. We have an obligation to take action in a real and meaningful way,” said Senator Rice. “Ensuring that any fatal shootings that involve local law enforcement are immediately transferred out of the local jurisdiction is vitally important. We must also do more to address how policing is done in this country and commit to healing our communities, by dealing with poverty, the need for jobs, housing and quality education.”
“No one in New Jersey is above the law and the judicial system must treat everyone equally and without favoritism or prejudice,” said Reva Foster, of BIC. “We must do everything we can to make sure we remove the reality or the perception of a conflict of interest in these cases.”
“There are many people in this country who don’t believe they will be treated equally or fairly in their interaction with police officers, even when they know they’ve done nothing wrong,” said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP. “This distrust, whether justified or not, undermines faith and confidence in law enforcement and the judicial system. This bill will help bring accountability to the process.”