N.J. moves to license cops in bid to increase public trust in policing

Plan has support of lawmakers, police unions, and reformers

By: - May 18, 2022 1:50 pm

Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin speaking about a new police licensing plan in Cedar Grove on May 18, 2022. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Governor’s Office)

New Jersey will move to license its police officers in a bid to increase public trust and accountability, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday with legislators and police union officials.

The move, if approved by lawmakers, means New Jersey would join the 46 states that already license law enforcement officials, and supporters say it would provide the state a new avenue to terminate officers who break the law, engage in hate speech, or cozy up to anti-government groups.

“At the end of the day, that’s a good thing because this license and all it will represent will lift up the overwhelming majority of women and men working honestly and diligently to keep our communities safe,” Murphy said during a press conference outside a police academy in Cedar Grove. “It will send a strong message that our cops and corrections officers are living up to their oaths, both in word and in deed.”

The Police Training Commission would be responsible for licensing officers and would have the ability to suspend, revoke, deny, or otherwise limit licenses after a hearing.

To be licensed, officers must pass a psychological assessment, engage in continual job training, and refrain from making social media posts or joining groups backing discrimination or an overthrow of the government. They must renew their licenses every three years.

The announcement is the culmination of a process that has stretched across two years and three attorneys general. The push began in July 2020, a month after a Woodlynne police officer was charged with assault for pepper-spraying two teenagers.

Ryan Dubiel, the officer, had bounced between nine police departments over a period of years, racking up complaints of excessive force as he went. That wouldn’t happen if police were licensed, acting Attorney General Matt Platkin said.

“It will ensure that officers who fail to meet standards of professionalism not only lose their right to have that privilege of having a badge, but they’re also unable to obtain a new badge in a different town or, in some cases, an entirely different state,” Platkin said.

The bill appears to face a clear path into law. For one, politically influential police unions that often act as a stumbling block to reforms have signed on.

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, appeared alongside Murphy and legislators to boost the policy Wednesday, saying it would serve his members as well as the public. This is “not a bill to be feared,” Colligan said, addressing his fellow law enforcement officers.

“Regardless of what union you’re in, when one of those members tarnishes the badge, we’re all tarnished, and it takes a long time to get over that,” he said.

Wayne Blanchard, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey; Robert Gries, executive vice president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police; and Richard Rivera, a founding member of the National Coalition of Latino Officers, also expressed support for police licensing. The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police also supported the bill.

The proposal also appears to have won the backing of Democrats in both chambers. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said licensing makes “logical and practical sense,” and chairs of public safety committees in both chambers spoke in the bill’s favor.

“Our communities will be better served, and our law enforcement agencies will be better equipped with a licensure framework in place,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), who chairs the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

The licensing proposal is the latest in a series of police reforms made under Murphy. Those include broader disclosure of police disciplinary records, expanded use of body-worn cameras, and a policy that requires the release of dash and body camera footage in cases where police used deadly force.

The past reforms do not mean advocates are any less thrilled about licensing.

“Three times already, most people have said when they came up to this podium that this was long overdue,” said Reva Foster, chair of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention. “I’m not going to let it be four, but I’m going to let it be five. It is long overdue. It is long overdue, and we are happy to have it happening today.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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