An open letter to Attorney General Matt Platkin on police killings
Matt Dragon says Attorney General Matt Platkin's policies and actions do not reflect the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Attorney General's Office)
Attorney General Matt Platkin,
You have mentioned that you regularly reread the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” You have even gone so far as to say that his words help guide you in your work as attorney general for the state of New Jersey.
But if you had heard, not just read, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” your policies and actions would reflect those words. We do not see those reflections.
As you must know well, King characterized a “white moderate” as someone who:
- Is more devoted to “order” than to justice.
- Prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.
- Constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”
- Paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.
- Lives by a mythical concept of time and constantly advises Black people to wait for a “more convenient season.”
But despite your reading list, your actions, and those of your office, indicate you are more devoted to order than to justice. Police departments throughout our state are enforcing a brutal and too often fatal negative peace.
Your office has failed to indict a single officer on even a single charge in the recent police killings of Hasani Best, Amir Johnson, Gulia Dale III, and Carl Dorsey. Their communities, our neighbors, deserve to see the records of how those cases were presented to understand how your office failed their friends, brothers, husbands, and fathers, and upheld a racist system of white supremacy.
As a result, we have very low expectations for the job your office will do presenting the police killings of Bernard Placide Jr. and Najee Seabrooks to grand juries. But make no mistake, the police have heard your office loud and clear: it is open season on Black men. And those officers are largely white, but certainly not moderates. Too many police officers represent the latest in a long line of those who knowingly choose to join a racist system. To exercise power over those they see as lesser, in some cases, fatally.
If you had heard, not just read, King’s letters you would be meeting with those who took up the burdens of King’s dream, so that you could listen, not speak. If you had heard, not just read, you would be putting forth actual evidence-based solutions, not reinforcing the status quo. You would propose solutions after asking communities for their input and ultimately their support in implementing them. If he were alive today, King would be appalled by your use of his words to justify your woefully insufficient actions and harmful policies. He would be in the streets, with us, protesting you and your lack of vision, action, and leadership. He would be with us, in the streets, and in writing, calling for you to intervene in the promotion of the Englewood officer who killed Bernard Placide Jr., the officer currently under investigation by your office for fatally shooting Bernard while he was incapacitated by other officers’ tasers.
Your takeover of Paterson police was a small first step for that city. But Paterson has been calling for a state takeover for years due to police violence, harassment, and outright corruption that has been successfully prosecuted federally for a decade. You have been considering this takeover since the fall of 2022, yet you came in and announced a new police chief on day one without ever listening to the community. Paterson police had just sworn in a new chief the day Najee Seabrooks was killed. Were they good? Bad? Who did you talk to to try to find out before replacing them?
Who was on the search committee? Anyone from Paterson? Anyone doing the work of making the community safer? Families that have experienced police violence or abuse? Anyone who has spent years asking for help from your office and the Legislature in holding the police accountable? You started your review of training, procedures, and officers — again without talking to the community. Yet you keep referencing that your powers and resources are limited. It would have made sense to coordinate with the community to maximize your limited impact, right? Now, two months in, you have held a community listening session and the new chief has announced several more, but how many decisions have already been made?
No amount of money, technology, or training can fix decades of corruption, violence, incompetence, and racism that are built into our systems of policing. If anything we should be cutting funding for Paterson police and redirecting that funding to evidence-based public safety solutions like Paterson Healing Collective, BLM Paterson’s Harm Reduction work, and investment in education, jobs, health care, and social services. Many of these solutions already exist in Paterson, but they struggle with inadequate funding, particularly from the state level.
Hearing Dr. King would mean:
- Listening to communities, especially those historically marginalized, including but not limited to Paterson, Newark, Trenton, Camden, Elizabeth, and Jersey City.
- Incorporating community ideas to shape state policy, not forcing state-initiated programs.
- Following the data and evidence.
- Committing to actual change, particularly the ones staunchly opposed by the police lobby.
- Refusing to pour more money into the failed policing policies and mediocre leadership of the last 60 years.
Maybe these words will reach you in a way that Dr. King’s have not after all this time. Will you listen to Dr. King and the communities of our state that have been overpoliced for generations? Will you call for codifying the current use-of-force directives, which your successor could overturn with the stroke of a pen? Will you support the police accountability and reform bills in the Legislature that have been stalled for far too long? Will you demonstrate that support publicly, or at least privately in conversations with legislators?
What will be your legacy?
A full version of this letter can be read here.
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