Over the last six months, tens of millions of Americans — incensed by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others at the hands of police — have taken to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and injustices. While the COVID-19 pandemic and an intractable Trump administration have overshadowed this conversation, the incoming Biden-Harris administration augurs well for a new era of progressive policing.
Despite this glimmer of hope, we know that real change will only come from state and local governments. In New Jersey, we’re ready and we have a playbook for the rest of the country. We just unveiled our latest chapter: a comprehensive framework governing the use of force by all 38,000 New Jersey police officers across all 500-plus police departments.
Our plan has three components — policy, training, and data analysis.
First, we issued a policy that requires all officers to be true guardians, who uphold the sanctity of human life and the rights, liberties and dignity of all persons in all interactions. Our officers are required to de-escalate, use force as an absolute last resort (particularly deadly force), provide verbal warnings before it’s used, and only then use force that is reasonable, necessary and proportional to the circumstances.
We’ve also limited the use of police canines (which have a long history of being used to injure and terrorize Black Americans); prohibited high-speed vehicular chases except where the subject has committed a serious offense; banned chokeholds in all but the most narrow of circumstances; instructed officers to limit the dangers of positional asphyxiation during arrests; and required them to intervene when a fellow officer is using force improperly or unlawfully.
Second, we know that “culture eats policy for breakfast” in policing. Through dozens of listening sessions and thousands of public comments, residents, civil rights leaders, and law enforcement executives have all made clear we need to improve culture. So we’re investing resources and time into a retraining effort on a scale that’s never been attempted in the United States. Our new training will be interactive, scenario-based, and will require all New Jersey’s officers to actively apply our new guidelines to the very circumstances that most often lead to improper or excessive use of force.
We’ve all seen too many police encounters involving individuals in the midst of mental health crises which quickly escalate to violence, with sometimes tragic consequences. But in New Jersey and elsewhere, we’ve also seen law enforcement deploy strategies and techniques to resolve these situations peacefully. Whether it’s officers de-escalating a situation with a knife-wielding man by giving him space and time, or patiently talking a suicidal man off a rooftop, we know that with proper training, the work we are doing will help save lives.
Third, all cops in our state must now report detailed and standardized information concerning every use of force using a web-based portal. We are actively analyzing this data and intend to make a version of our portal available to the public in early 2021. So on the one hand, officials now have an unprecedented tool to monitor use of force trends, including for racial disparities. On the other, the public will finally have visibility into these incidents. And together, we’ll see in real-time whether our policies are working.
Of course, efforts like ours depend on community, as well as law enforcement, buy-in, and our new framework has that broad support. We’ve spent over a year listening to cops, residents, activists, and stakeholders across the state. These open and honest conversations are critical to building trust with the community and have been a mainstay of our efforts. This trust — and the legitimacy that flows from it — is essential to public safety; for one, it’s what makes residents from historically marginalized communities feel comfortable reporting crimes to law enforcement.
We’re confident that we’ll succeed in our efforts because our program builds on others that began in cities like Camden, N.J., which has long been a model of what smart police reforms can accomplish. In 2019, Camden adopted a policy governing police use of force, implemented extensive retraining, and established a system to review all force incidents. Their uses of force have since declined, while relationships between cops and the community — and public safety — have improved.
And so for states and municipalities nationwide, we offer a proven roadmap that takes meaningful steps to make policing more just and accountable. We encourage officials and advocates everywhere to scrutinize our work and offer feedback. By working together we can best address the systemic racism and injustices that have pervaded our country for centuries, and move toward a future where we honor the memories of George Floyd, and the too many others we have tragically lost both before and since.
Gurbir S. Grewal is New Jersey’s Attorney General.