ACLU-NJ urges Gov. Murphy to sign bill, which would designate the AG’s Office, not local prosecutors, to investigate fatal police encounters

December 17, 2018

The New Jersey Assembly took an important step toward greater police accountability by voting yes on a bill that would require independent investigations when someone dies during an encounter with law enforcement or while in custody. The Senate passed its version of the bill, S1036, in March, meaning that the bill will now go to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy. The ACLU-NJ and other advocates call on him to sign the legislation into law.

If enacted, A3115 would require the Attorney General to supersede the local county prosecutor in investigating and prosecuting any incident in which a person’s death occurred during a police encounter or while in custody.

“The public needs to know law enforcement will be accountable if they exercise the extraordinary powers we give them, including the power to take a life, and this legislation is a pivotal step toward that public assurance,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou. “By shifting investigations of fatal police encounters away from the local prosecutors who work day-in, day-out, with officers to the state’s chief law enforcement officer, this legislation establishes a baseline standard in which investigations will not be tainted by a conflict of interest, or even the perception of one.”

When local prosecutors are expected to investigate officers in those same police departments for potentially criminal conduct, this sudden role-shifting creates a conflict of interest or, at a minimum, a perception of a conflict. Even the perception of a conflict of interest can foster distrust between community residents and law enforcement officers. Lack of trust can lead to residents feeling reluctant to cooperate with officers conducting investigations. Recognizing the critical need for building trust between police and communities, in 2015 President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing specifically recommended external and independent investigations for these cases.

“The public deserves the security of knowing that an investigation into the most devastating cases for communities is conducted as impartially as possible, and we thank the members of the Assembly and Senate for passing this important bill,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “New Jersey still needs work to fall in line with best police practices, but when people see a strong protocol in place to keep investigations of police killings impartial and credible, trust can grow between police and the communities they serve.”

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