Gov. Phil Murphy signing a bill in Bloomfield in July. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a controversial law Tuesday that will allow New Jersey police officers to review their own body-camera footage before writing incident reports.
Reformers fought the measure, fearing it would enable officers to omit details the camera didn’t capture and thereby evade accountability. Police unions pushed for it, saying it would improve the accuracy of police reports.
The bill was one of 123 bills Murphy signed into law Tuesday. The day was his deadline to sign legislation lawmakers passed in the last session before he was inaugurated at midday Tuesday. The Legislature’s new two-year session started last week.
Murphy pocket-vetoed 16 bills, meaning they will not become law.
The body-camera law was one of the most contentious on Tuesday’s list of new laws. Murphy conditionally vetoed it in November, when he recommended restrictions to officers’ access to such footage in cases where police force is used, a firearm is discharged, or someone dies in police custody.
The Assembly passed an amended bill in December, and the Senate followed suit last week. All New Jersey cops on patrol are required to wear body cameras.
C.J. Griffin is a New Jersey attorney who has fought for police accountability.
“It’s frustrating that the governor is starting his second term off by rolling back the benefits of body cams and enabling bad apples,” Griffin said. “We need to hear how the governor is going to reform policing, because so far nothing has happened, and this only makes things worse.”
Murphy in November 2020 signed a bill requiring all police to wear body cameras and another barring them from viewing the footage before writing their reports, a move seen as a step toward police accountability in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Murphy’s critics say the new law is a step backward.
“The problem with allowing officers to view body-camera footage before they write reports is that it becomes impossible to later separate what an officer remembers from what they learned by watching the tape,” said attorney Tess Borden of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “The previous law is a better one. It required officers to write their reports before viewing footage and allowed them to make any additions or clarifications after viewing. In this way, both the accuracy of the report and the officer’s independent memory of events were preserved.”
The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, in a statement posted to its website Tuesday, said, “The law will ensure accuracy in countless police reports and assist officers to properly record a situation.”
The other bills that became law Tuesday with Murphy’s mass signings cover a lot of ground, from education to public health to domestic violence to juvenile justice.
Murphy signed a slew of education bills, largely aimed at helping school districts struggling with the pandemic.
Retired teachers and school staff can return to classrooms through the 2022-2023 school year under a new law intended to alleviate some of the staffing burden caused by rising COVID-19 cases and teacher burnout. Retirees who are temporarily rehired will still be able to collect their pensions.
Another new law allows prospective teachers to be evaluated by the Department of Education rather than take a basic skills test, expediting their entry into classrooms.
Murphy also signed a bill that will require an annual report on the New Jersey teacher workforce, including a breakdown of staff demographics. According to a 2018 report, just 16% of New Jersey teachers are people of color.
Another will create a bus safety watchdog office to oversee and coordinate school bus drivers and contractors who take the thousands of students being bused to their schools. It appropriates $200,000 for the Department of Education.
New Jersey will now be the second state in the nation requiring public schools to teach about the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Another bill signed by Murphy creates a 21-member commission on Asian American heritage in the Department of Education to help create guidelines for schools.
Assemblyman Sterley Stanley was a prime sponsor of those bills.
“The Asian American and Pacific Islander community has enriched every corner of New Jersey’s culture, economy, schools, arts, businesses, and so much more,” said Stanley (D-Middlesex). “The programs developed under this law will reinforce to students that our state’s diversity is our strength.”
Another new law signed Tuesday requires districts to publicly report the demographics of students they discipline. Advocates say school discipline disproportionately targets Black and brown students. The education commissioner will be required to create a statewide database too.
Student representatives will also join local school boards or boards of trustees in districts with grades nine through 12 under a new law.
Related to higher education, Murphy signed a bill that requires colleges and universities to create accessible mental health programs and services for students, including a hotline with information.
Other measures Murphy signed were intended to beef up the state’s battle to contain the opioid epidemic. Nearly 2,700 people died of drug overdoses last year through October in New Jersey, state data shows. Overdose fatalities in New Jersey have steadily increased over most of the past decade, from 1,223 confirmed drug deaths in 2012 to 3,046 suspected drug deaths in 2020, state data shows.
One new law will expand access to safe-syringe sites, which are also known as harm reduction programs. There are only seven statewide, and Atlantic City officials’ fight to close theirs prompted this legislation. Critics have complained such sites can draw out-of-towners who leave trash behind. But supporters say these programs improve public health by reducing blood-borne diseases and linking users with addiction treatment.
Carol Harney, CEO of South Jersey AIDS Alliance, applauded Murphy for signing the bill.
“This legislation secures health services for some of the state of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents, from Atlantic County to Sussex County, who are all too often overlooked by policymakers,” Harney said.
Under another new law, people in possession of syringes no longer can be charged with a criminal offense. The law also allows people previously charged with this offense to pursue expungement.
Another new law authorizes every county to establish local drug overdose fatality review teams.
“From every tragic overdose, we can learn valuable lessons that can help avert similar deaths in (the) future,” said Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), a prime sponsor of that bill.
Criminal justice reform
Several new laws take aim at repealing outdated laws that disproportionately impact marginalized groups and improving mental health training for law enforcement officers.
One measure repeals a 1997 law that made it a third-degree crime for someone living with HIV to engage in an “act of sexual penetration” without the informed consent of their partner. Few people had been charged under the old law, but acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck pushed for its repeal at the request of LGBT advocates, citing the stigma it created.
Another new law requires mental health training for police officers to ensure safer encounters with people in psychiatric crisis, including people struggling with addiction.
One law expands the offenses that are eligible for expungement for people who successfully complete drug court. Another is intended to help human trafficking survivors move past their trauma by creating a process for them to get certain arrests, convictions, and other court actions vacated and expunged.
Domestic violence survivors should benefit under several other new laws. One expands the domestic violence training required for judges, law enforcement officers, and assistant county prosecutors, while another establishes mandatory domestic violence training for municipal prosecutors.
Murphy signed one long-stalled, controversial bill intended to reduce voter intimidation at the polls. The new law limits police presence at polling places and ballot drop boxes, largely barring county election boards from requesting police be stationed within 100 feet of a polling place or a secure ballot drop box.
Several new laws were motivated, at least in part, by the continuing stresses the pandemic places on the economy and job market.
Under one bill that’s now law, New Jersey Department of Agriculture will reimburse dairy farmers for the annual premiums they pay to participate in the federal Dairy Margin Coverage Program. The move is intended to help the state’s struggling dairy farmers as they face sagging milk prices, soaring operating costs, and pandemic stresses.
And as the ranks of some law enforcement agencies dwindle, one new law will exempt entry-level law enforcement officers, sheriff’s officers, and state and county correctional police officers from a civil service examination requirement.
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