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Sweeney: New laws will help ensure a more diverse police force in New Jersey | Opinion

Senate President Steve Sweeney | August 20, 2020 | Star-Ledger |


It is important that our police officers are more than just law enforcement officers. In order to effectively “serve and protect” officers should be embedded into the community. That is why Sen. Ron Rice and I have sponsored a bill package to ensure that police departments better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Police departments in New Jersey, and across the nation, are disproportionately white and fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. In the nation, we have 50 cities with more than 100,000 residents where the percentage of Black police officers is less than half the percentage of the Black population in the city. The gap is even wider for Hispanics.

The failure to achieve proper diversity in police departments matters. National experts say diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community especially when it’s a predominantly white police force patrolling communities that are predominantly people of color.

As calls for police reform reverberate around the nation, acting to ensure equity and inclusivity in the hiring process for law enforcement agencies is a logical and vital first step toward more equitable policing. It is paramount that the police forces we entrust to keep the peace in New Jersey reflect the communities they are bound to serve. We won’t achieve this, however, until every applicant pursuing a career in law enforcement is given fair and equal consideration.

Recent decades have seen pushes for diversity in law enforcement and to an extent, progress has been made. New Jersey, however, has a long way to go to bridge the demographic gap between our police departments and our communities. Like so many disparities in the workplace, addressing this gap will require a series of policy changes and consistent oversight to ensure that the changes are made.

In June, the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement (NOBLE) wrote to the chief executive officer for the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, Deirdrẻ Webster Cobb, Esq., and provided strategies to increase diversity in law enforcement.

Since my office received a copy of this letter, we have been working with NOBLE and Senator Rice (D-Essex), chair of the Black Legislative Caucus and a former Newark police officer, to craft legislation that would address the concerns the organization laid out. This week, Senator Rice and I introduced a three-part bill package to help level the hiring field for people of color.

The first bill focuses on diversity, analysis and oversight. Currently, we don’t know the racial makeup of our applicant pool and we don’t know why any particular person did not meet the threshold to be hired. To gather the information we need to ensure equitable hiring practices, the bill would require the Civil Service Commission to develop a statewide database to collect and track background data on all applicants for law enforcement positions, and the thresholds used by all law enforcement agencies for selecting or disqualifying applicants. This way we can understand not only why a person is hired but why a person is not hired.

The bill also requires the commission to work with national and state experts to develop a universal background application to be used in all law enforcement hiring. They would help develop training guidelines for those evaluating background applications so they are able to better understand the challenges underrepresented groups face and to ensure that these challenges are accounted for in the selection process.

The second bill requires the Civil Service Commission to conduct an analysis of law enforcement agencies in New Jersey to determine racial composition, salaries, geographic and socio-economic variances and the impact of residency requirements. This legislation also would create a program that provides low-cost prep courses for the entry-level exams for residents of low-income communities and possible scholarships for alternate route programs that qualify applicants for law enforcement positions.

These are good-paying, union jobs. This program recognizes that there is not only a racial gap, but a wealth gap, that creates an unequal playing field for applicants from communities of color.

The last bill would require the Civil Service Commission to establish and maintain a mentorship program that would assist minority law enforcement candidates through the application and selection process. The mentors would be current or former law enforcement officers who would help others navigate the application process with workshops, group discussions and individual consultations — offering a helping hand where, historically, there was a glass ceiling.

This legislation would make a real difference in elevating community policing in New Jersey to the next level. Our goal is a more diverse police force because we recognize that where a person grew up matters, that their socioeconomic status matters, that their gender matters and yes, that their race and ethnicity matters. It is our collective responsibility to actively and deliberatively work to ensure that we continue to make progress in improving law enforcement and the quality of life for all elements of society.


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