The bill would require officers to undergo psychological evaluations and continual training to obtain or renew licenses needed to work as law enforcement in New Jersey. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee advanced a bill Thursday that would require licensure for New Jersey’s police officers in a near-unanimous vote to plaudits from police unions, the state attorney general, and civil rights advocates.
The committee approved the bill, which advocates from all sides said would improve police accountability and professionalism, in a 6-1 bipartisan vote. Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) voted no.
“Not only does licensure ensure quality of service across an industry, but licensure helps protect the vast majority of dedicated professionals from the reputational harm and erosion of trust that can be done by the misdeeds of a few,” acting Attorney General Matt Platkin said. “I believe this proposed program will improve the already strong community-police relationships that exist in our state.”
The licensure program would require officers to undergo psychological evaluations and continual training to obtain or renew their licenses, which they would need to work as law enforcement in New Jersey. A Police Training Commission would oversee the committee responsible for licensing officers, and the state would be able to suspend someone’s police license after a disciplinary process.
More than 40 other states require police officers to be licensed or obtain a certification.
Though police unions and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey hailed the bill as a positive step, they still asked for some changes.
Sean Lavin, legislative chairman of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, asked lawmakers to pass a separate bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) that would subject NJ Transit Police and officers at various university police departments to the same rules that would govern other law enforcement officers.
“We feel that bill must be passed with this bill because you have segments of law enforcement that will not be licensed as this bill is written today,” Lavin said.
The licensing bill specifically applies to campus police officers, who are subject to different hiring regulations than municipal officers, but Lavin said those provisions would not apply to campus police at private universities. He said the bill also misses some other agencies, like the Burlington County Bridge Commission Police.
Lavin also asked lawmakers to expand officers’ ability to appeal disciplinary actions. As written, the bill would require law enforcement executives to notify the Police Training Commission when an officer is fired, demoted, suspended, or fined.
The bill would allow officers to appeal some disciplinary actions, but Lavin said officers already must wait years, without pay, for appeal hearings. He asked legislators to allow officers a hearing before their cases reach the Police Training Commission’s licensing committee.
“Right now, after talking to our state legal defense attorneys, the wait to get a hearing in the Office of Administrative Law in a discipline case is two years,” he said. “That’s two years without pay, benefits while you’re waiting just for a hearing, and then you can avail yourself of the appellate division if you must.”
He also asked the bill be amended to guarantee the presence of public members with experience in law enforcement on the licensing committee. The bill would give the commission broad authority over its membership, requiring only that it include a state attorney general designee and at least one member of the public.
Joe Johnson, ACLU-New Jersey’s policy counsel, urged legislators to require the licensing committee to use the National Decertification Index, a national registry of license and certificate revocations Johnson said would make it more difficult for problem officers to get rehired in other states.
“The NDI really is the gold standard, and if we share data with the NDI, we can also access reciprocal information from other states,” he said.
Johnson also expressed concerns about provisions in the bill requiring oversight of officers’ social media posts. The bill would require officers and their agency’s executives to certify that an officer has not made discriminatory or hateful posts on social media. It would also require officers to provide a full list of their social media accounts to their employer and the Police Training Commission.
Johnson said he’s confident that during the regulation drafting stage, the Police Training Commission would get “the information it needs without unnecessarily encroaching on privacy rights and the right to anonymous speech.”
The committee also advanced a bill Thursday that would make private use of tracking devices without the tracked person’s consent a crime. That bill was amended to exempt telecommunications companies before clearing the committee in a 6-1 vote. Peterson was the lone no vote.
They also unanimously cleared a third bill that would end long-standing diversions of the state’s 911 System and Emergency Response Fund, which was established in 2004 to pay for upgrades to county 911 systems but has seen its funds diverted to shore up state police and emergency preparedness budgets, among other things, for more than a decade.
The bill would require money from the fund — about $126 million collected annually through a surcharge on phone bills — first go to county, regionalized, or large 911 centers, followed by local entities.
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