Lawmakers pass bills to license police, pair cops with mental health counselors

By: - July 1, 2022 6:48 am

Police reformers applauded the bills’ passage — but said both measures show much more work is needed to ensure police accountability. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres | Governor’s Office)

New Jersey lawmakers passed two police reform bills this week intended to weed out bad cops and improve police interactions with people in mental crisis.

The first measure would require law enforcement officers to be licensed, as professionals from doctors to manicurists must be. The second bill would establish a three-year pilot program in Essex, Burlington, and Middlesex counties that would pair mental health professionals with plainclothes officers to respond to certain emergencies.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the second bill Thursday. The police licensure bill awaits his signature.

Police reformers applauded the bills’ passage — but said both measures show much more work is needed to ensure police accountability.

Zellie Thomas, an organizer with Black Lives Matter of Paterson, agreed licensing officers could help hold them accountable for misconduct and ensure bad cops don’t hopscotch around the state to new jobs every time they get fired or disciplined.

He called the mental health bill “a step in the right direction of acknowledging that police presence and police aggression can make situations worse.”

Police licenses would have to be renewed every three years, and officers could lose them if they get convicted of a crime, an act of domestic violence, or any offense that precludes them from carrying a firearm.

The bill tasks the state’s Police Training Commission with establishing and implementing the licensure process, standards, and criteria that could result in suspension, revocation, restrictions, or denial. The commission would report license revocations to a national database to ensure decertified officers don’t pursue public safety jobs in other states.

Thomas noted the commission would be “heavily stacked with law enforcement or law enforcement-adjacent people.”

Under the bill passed Wednesday, four members of the public would serve on the commission, which otherwise includes individuals from 15 law enforcement agencies, the state Department of Education, and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“These measures the legislators are passing to create community trust are always going to fail if the community is not involved,” Thomas said.

The bill comes with a $6 million price tag to put licensure in place. It passed unanimously in the Senate. In the Assembly, 70 lawmakers approved it, with eight Republicans voting no.

Yannick Wood, director of the criminal justice reform program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said his group will press the commission “to be more inclusive of social justice organizations who represent communities of color and people that are actually impacted by policing.”

Police transparency remains elusive in New Jersey. Legislation that would make police disciplinary records public has been long-stalled. While the state Attorney General’s Office began requiring law enforcement agencies to publicly report major discipline last year, the reports are so brief and vague that reformers have decried their usefulness as an accountability tool.

And the police licensing bill passed Wednesday does not require the commission to post its licensing decisions online, as reformers had urged to ensure transparency, Wood said.

Lawmakers also have repeatedly failed to act on a bill that would create civilian review boards with subpoena power to investigate police misconduct and recommend discipline and policy changes.

“There needs to be a shift towards passing legislation that will truly create accountability,” Thomas said.

The mental health program — called Arrive Together, short for “Alternative Response to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation” — is intended to deescalate potentially volatile encounters between police and people in crisis from emotional distress or a mental health issue, while also ensuring that person gets treatment instead of incarceration. More than half of fatal police encounters involve someone who is in mental or emotional crisis.

The bill includes a $2 million appropriation to implement the pilot program. It passed unanimously in both chambers.

Both bills represent sizeable investments in policing at a time when reformers have called on policymakers to instead invest directly in communities to remedy the root causes of crime, like poverty, addiction, unemployment, and mental illness, Thomas added.

“That’s the conversation that we need to start having in this country — that public safety doesn’t always mean more police or investing in the police departments,” he said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.