NEWARK, NJ — At the People’s Organization for Progress’ weekly Justice Monday protest outside the Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in downtown Newark on Monday, Jan. 28, the organization called for Gov. Phil Murphy to establish an independent prosecutor to investigate deaths that occur during encounters with police or while in their custody. P.O.P would like Murphy to sign Assembly Bill A3115 by the Thursday, Jan. 31, deadline, after acting Essex County Prosecutor and East Orange resident Ted Stephens issued a statement on the use of police force Friday, Jan. 25.
P.O.P. has been rallying at the Rodino Building every Monday for the 171 consecutive weeks, seeking to convince New Jersey’s new U.S. attorney to open civil rights investigations into the “Jersey 4” the unarmed black men killed by New Jersey police, including Abdul Kamal, who was shot and killed by Irvington police; Kashad Ashford, who was killed by Lyndhurst police; Jerame Reid, who was killed by Bridgeton police; and 14-year-old Radazz Hearns, who was shot seven times by Trenton police — four times in the back. The Irvington officers involved with Kamal’s shooting death were all cleared of any wrongdoing related to his death.
“The bill requires the state attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor, when someone dies in an encounter with the police or while in their custody,” said P.O.P. Chairman Larry Hamm on Sunday, Jan. 27. “It has passed both the General Assembly and state Senate of the New Jersey Legislature. It has been on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature, since December. He has until Jan. 31 to sign the bill.”
According to Zayid Muhammad, the P.O.P. vice chairman for public information, the Monday protest was designed to help Murphy make a difficult and politically sensitive decision.
“Gov. Murphy is facing a divide over the bill, which mandates a special prosecutor to be empowered, whenever an unarmed civilian dies at the hands of the police,” said Muhammad on Friday, Jan. 25. “Advocates say that it would provide much-needed transparency for those kinds of investigations and help restore public trust in the process. Detractors, including New Jersey Attorney General (Gurbir S.) Grewal, say that the bill assumes ill intent of police officers and undermines the credibility of the current process.”
“Bill A3115 calls for an investigation by the attorney general, who shall supersede the county prosecutor when a death is caused by law enforcement, when a person is in custody or law enforcement and officers are acting in official capacity,” said former Irvington NAACP President Kathleen Witcher, an advocate of the bill, on Monday, Jan. 28. “Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake is the sponsor of the bill. It also indicates that further investigation may be warranted to gather evidence, according to state statute, and if criminal action is found, the case can go on to grand jury and further court proceedings.”
Witcher supports P.O.P.’s push to get Murphy to sign the bill into law.
“This bill needs Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature by Jan. 31,” she said. “It is a bill that may bring some attention to the numbers of victims, when deadly force is alleged by police officers, that appear to be incidents increasing around the country, with men, women and children shot or otherwise killed by police for what appears to be no real reason. We should stand for justice. In the realm of Black Lives Matter, we must be always on the alert, because racism and discrimination are afoot. We know that by statements openly made, even by officials in government who run the country.”
Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear shared Witcher’s sentiments.
“Our unit supports the proposed legislation. … Our members will be going to the rally at the county courthouse this afternoon, in support that the governor signs the proposed legislation,” said Puryear on Monday, Jan. 28. “If the bill is not signed by the (Jan.) 31, it automatically becomes a new statute. The relationship between the county Prosecutor’s Office and the local police stations may give the appearance that justice is not blind, when it involves a fatality.”
Bishop Reginald Jackson agreed with Puryear. Jackson is best known for leading the fight against racial profiling in New Jersey while he served as both pastor and president of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council, a fight that resulted in state laws prohibiting this practice.
“I call upon Gov. Murphy to sign the independent prosecutor bill that has been sitting on his desk,” said Jackson on Sunday, Jan. 27. “This is not a tough call. A special prosecutor would add credibility to any investigation.”
Jackson also said New Jersey needs to start enforcing existing laws that prohibit police misconduct and abuse of force.
“In addition to signing the special prosecutor bill, New Jersey should also enforce the racial profiling law, which is already law,” added Jackson. “The failure to hold law enforcement accountable and always provide them benefit of the doubt has perpetuated a culture of indifference. Gov. Murphy, sign the bill!”
Orange City Council President Kerry Coley and others were not as optimistic, however. Coley is a retired Orange police officer.
“Regarding the bill A3115/S1036, I don’t think that it will have any bearing on the public when it comes to law suits,” said Coley on Monday, Jan. 28. “However, I do feel that it will increase the public trust in the process. No system is perfect, but this will ensure a fair and impartial outcome for both the police and the public.”
Former Orange Mayor attorney Eldridge Hawkins Jr. worked as a police officer in the West Orange Police Department prior to being elected and for an extended period of time while he served in that capacity. He said more work needs to be done to train police officers better and to build bridges of understanding between officers and the communities they are supposed to be protecting.
“As a former member of NJ’s CLEAR Institute, mayor, retired police officer and a black male myself, I understand what goes into creating policy (and) the concerns minority groups have when it comes to the police, as well as the officer’s need to get home safely at the end of his/her shift. Proper policy and subsequent implementation through training, an open mind and community involvement is key in striking the necessary balance, to help ensure everyone’s safety and a better law enforcement environment,” Hawkins said Monday, Jan. 28. “That said, prior to this report coming to light, there have been many people, including myself, on both sides of the divide, who have continued to work at bridging the gap between police and the community. As a member of the CLEAR Institute, which was a group led by the N.J. Attorney General’s Office to create training modules, which addressed things like subconscious racial bias and de-escalation training, we laid the groundwork to make police encounters safer and less contentious.”
Hawkins agreed with former Irvington police Chief Michael Chase that more professionalism by police is the key to improving relations with community law enforcement and ensures safer encounters between police officers and citizens, especially minorities.
“Through participation with that group and general life experience, it became even more clear that, no matter what race or ethnicity someone might be, things happen every day that reinforce various stereotypes or subconscious bias in our minds, that can have an impact on policing and, by extension, use of force,” said Hawkins. “There are also historical community experiences with police that color its view of law enforcement. If we can have honest discussions and bring these things to the forefront of our conscious mind, then perhaps we can respond differently to the myriad of situations police and the community may encounter. Community policing and ongoing training can help facilitate this (and) so can having a police force that has a racial mix reflective of the community it serves.”