Bill is Designed to Bring Fairness & Impartiality to the Process after High-Profile Acquittals Across the Country
Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Sheila Oliver, Herb Conaway, Jr., M.D., Cleopatra Tucker, Shavonda Sumter and Jamel Holley to help ensure impartiality when a law enforcement officer kills someone in the line of duty was approved by an Assembly panel on Monday.
The bill (A-1115) provides that, whenever a person’s death occurred during an encounter with a police officer or other law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent was in custody, the state Attorney General would supersede the local county prosecutor, utilizing existing supersession authority, and conduct, personally or by a designated deputy or assistant attorney general, any investigation, criminal action or proceeding concerning the incident.
“The failure of grand juries to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed African-American victims across the nation has led to widespread concern for many, many reasons, including a stark lack of confidence by some in the criminal justice system,” said Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic). “These high-profile cases are sensitive enough without local communities having to wonder whether the collaborative relationship between the local prosecutor’s office and local law enforcement gives rise to a conflict of interest that would influence the proceedings. While every case is different, this is a very legitimate concern that can be addressed with this common sense bill.”
The bill was inspired by the failure of grand juries to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed African-American victims Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, among others, which have led to widespread protests and calls for reforms to the criminal justice system. A Houston Chronicle investigation also that found “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.
“This bill is designed to address the perception of bias in police misconduct investigations,” said Conaway (D-Burlington). “Recent high-profile decisions by grand juries not to charge police officers in cases of police-involved fatalities have eroded the public’s trust when it comes to allowing county prosecutors to investigate the local police officers with whom they regularly work and rely upon. Under this bill, these cases would be handled by a special prosecutor.”
Under the bill, the Attorney General or designee would present evidence concerning the incident to a county grand jury or a state grand jury, either one regularly impaneled or one requested to be impaneled by the Attorney General or the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice for this specific purpose, in order to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer.
“By design, the relationship between police and prosecutors is a close one and that closeness has led to doubts as to the fairness of having local prosecutors bring charges against local police to grand juries,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “A bill likes this removes the appearance of a conflict, and that alone is a giant step forward in bringing greater fairness and impartiality to the criminal justice process.”
Additionally, any further investigation, criminal action or proceeding, following an indictment, would be conducted under the law as any other investigation, criminal action or proceeding resulting from a grand jury indictment; provided that the venue for any such criminal action or proceeding would occur in a court located in a county other than the county in which the incident, resulting in the officer’s indictment, occurred.
“The simplest way to remove the appearance of a conflict created by putting prosecutors in charge of investigating police officers they regularly work directly with is, in fact, to no longer have them be in charge of prosecuting those police officers,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “For grieving families this may help provide a measure of closure, rather than living the rest of their lives with the sense that justice was never served.”
“This is all about justice. Communities in New Jersey – and everywhere – deserve to know that fatal incidents involving police will be handled with the utmost fairness. The current system is prone to many questions that only continue to foment unrest and mistrust with our judicial system. This bill would create a better approach,” said Holley (D-Union).
The legislation was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The bill would take effect four months following enactment.