Independent prosecutor bill signed into law

Photo by Chris Sykes
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, NJ State Police Commander Col. Patrick Callahan, the Rev. E.T. Stoddard of Church of the Oranges, Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren and Derrick Green, the senior advisor on diversity, faith, urban and regional growth in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, stand with two Orange High School students who are being considered for scholarships to Yale University and Harvard University on Saturday, Feb. 2, during the Church of the Oranges community meeting, along with North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason, at large Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten, City Council President and East Ward Councilman Kerry Coley, West Ward Councilman Harold Johnson, at large Councilman Chris Jackson and Louis Copeland.

ORANGE, NJ — Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday, Jan. 30, signed Senate Bill 1036 into law, which orders the state attorney general to handle the investigation and prosecution of a crime involving a person’s death that occurs during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in their official capacity or while the decedent was in custody.

“While this bill is a limited solution to a challenging issue, I have concluded that signing this bill will be an important step in improving police-community relations in New Jersey,” said Murphy on Wednesday, Jan. 30. “I know we are a stronger and safer state when every law enforcement officer feels respected and every community feels valued.”

Former Irvington NAACP President Kathleen Witcher had joined Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear, Bishop Reginald Jackson of the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orange, the People’s Organization for Progress and many others in calling on Murphy to sign the new bill into law before the Thursday, Jan. 31 deadline.

In response to this bill’s passage, at a community meeting on Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Church of the Oranges on Reynolds Avenue in Orange, Puryear asked state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who was in attendance, how he planned to implement the law. Grewal was part of the panel discussion at the meeting that included NJ state police Commander Col. Patrick Callahan, the Rev. E.T. Stoddard of the Church of the Oranges, Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren and Derrick Green, the senior advisor on diversity, faith, urban and regional growth in Murphy’s administration.

Grewal said, now that the bill is state law, he intends to enforce it as he would every other New Jersey law on the books. He did admit, however, that it would be a challenge to do so.

“Unfortunately, the bill did not give us lead time to build out the capacity to do these investigations. It was effective immediately,” said Grewal on Saturday, Feb. 2. “We had asked the legislators, if they were going to push forward this bill, that they give us six months to a year to build out a statewide shooting-response team, because these are very, very important investigations for the community, for law enforcement, for accountability, and they have to be done right. We have to be able to respond quickly to any scene across the state, to hold that scene to preserve evidence, to get videotapes if they exist, body cams, do interviews, to have the resources to do the interviews.”

Grewal said all the logistical mechanisms for conducting the investigations legislators and social justice activists envision do not currently exist. But he said he will comply with the bill’s mandates as soon as possible.

“The goal of this bill was to take the county prosecutors out of it, because there was the sense that you could not trust the county prosecutor to investigate local law enforcement,” Grewal said. “But what the folks who pushed forward the bill didn’t really think about is, if you’re sending the attorney general’s Shooting Response Team from Trenton to Paterson, where are we supposed to do the interviews? We can’t take all the witnesses back to Trenton. We need to use local resources, to some extent, as we would in any other investigation, and we’ll probably have to because that’s the way we do all of our investigations.

“We have to go to the Prosecutor’s Office and use an interview room, so we can record an interview to get somebody’s memory right there. So if that investigation shows we need to charge, we get the best possible evidence to try that case. If that evidence shows that the officer was defusing a situation where there was a gang event and saved somebody’s life by intervening, well, we should be able to collect that evidence and show that the shooting was legally justified.

“So there are some unintended consequences in the bill that those who were pushing for it in the Legislature did not see, but we’re going to do everything possible to implement it and to make sure those investigations are done in the best possible way, to ensure integrity in the criminal justice system and to ensure accountability, and it’s going to be a little bit of a process while we build out the system, at the same time.”

Witcher said she hopes Grewal’s actions in support of Bill S1036 live up to his words and commended Murphy for signing the landmark social justice bill into state law.

“I am elated that Gov. Murphy signed into law a bill that addresses the deaths of people in police custody or those who die as a result of price intervention,” said Witcher on Tuesday, Feb. 5. “Like our deceased brother, Abdul W. Kamal, other victims have been killed or death has obviously occurred when police use other than proper procedures or act out of poor judgment. It appears to me that, in Kamal’s case, he was shot multiple times, although he pulled out a cellphone, even though police reports indicate that the six officers, five who fired, were going to ‘take him down.’ ”

Witcher said she hopes the new independent prosecutor law will lead to more transparency between law enforcement and the public, as well as more accountability from police officers tasked with apprehending and arresting suspects alive.

“The story told in the press about Kamal’s death would not have stood ground, in my opinion, had the follow-up by the county performed a complete investigation in the death of Abdul Kamal,” said Witcher. “I went to the Prosecutor’s Office with Kamal’s father. What was presented, to me, was unacceptable. It reminded me of other cases, including Kwame, Danette Strawberry Daniels, Michael Newkirk and Earl Faison in Orange.”

Witcher said she remains optimistic that Grewal will do what Murphy clearly wants regarding the new law.

“It is hurtful that complete evidence establishing cases seem to be distant from the reports, and possible witnesses do not get to even state their observations,” said Witcher. “Perhaps now there will be strength in place that brings justice to the victims and closure to their families and friends.”

Support for the bill had been building. The People’s Organization for Progress, led by Chairman Larry Hamm, has been rallying outside the Peter W. Rodino Federal Building in Newark for 171 consecutive weeks to urge civil rights investigations into people killed by N.J. police. On Monday, Jan. 28, the group called on Murphy to sign the bill and the P.O.P. wasn’t alone in calling for the bill to be passed.

“In addition to signing the special prosecutor bill, New Jersey should also enforce the racial profiling law, which is already law,” Jackson said Sunday, Jan. 27. “The failure to hold law enforcement accountable and always provide them benefit of the doubt has perpetuated a culture of indifference.”

Hamm praised Murphy for stepping up and signing the bill into law, calling it a sign that the governor is interested in social justice issues. He also commended Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake from East Orange and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly from Paterson, who co-sponsored the Assembly version of the bill.

“I commend those legislators that sponsored, supported and voted for the bill,” said Hamm on Wednesday, Jan. 30. “And I especially express my deepest gratitude to those community activists all over the state that have been fighting for years to make this reform a reality.”

Irvington Councilwoman October Hudley was also in the audience at the Feb. 2 community meeting.

“I am here because I heard there was going to be a panel discussion with the attorney general to discuss all sorts of issues that I feel are very important that address our community, as far as legalization of marijuana and the criminal justice system,” said Hudley on Feb. 2. “As a councilwoman, as an elected official and also as the president of the Irvington National Action Network, and also as a mother, I wanted to come here just to see what they had to talk about and gather information. I gathered a wealth of information and I was very impressed with the attorney general, how he told the community that, when he took on the position, he did see that there was a disconnect with the community relations with law enforcement, and how he came up with some initiatives to try to bridge that gap.”

Timberlake agreed that the creation of an independent prosecutor for this purpose was long overdue.

“As many great civil rights leaders have said: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” said Timberlake on Wednesday, Jan. 30. “Today is a great day for justice, civil and human rights. I want to thank Gov. Murphy for proving, yet again, his dedication to being progressive, not just in words but in action. Signing this bill, which requires that an independent investigation occur, when a person dies in police custody or during an interaction with law enforcement, is a great leap toward authoritative accountability. When administered, this law should be of assistance to officers who are doing the right thing, while also sifting out biases that exist amongst those armed with power.”

Timberlake also said she has very personal reasons for co-sponsoring the Assembly version of the bill.

“As the mother of a son, it was important to me to fight for this bill to become a law, a law that will deter the use of excessive force and save lives,” she said. “Thank you to the advocacy groups who have supported this law, and to the Assembly and Senate leadership, fellow sponsors in both houses, past and present. Without their leadership and courage, this would not have been possible. Lastly, to the families of those who have unwarrantedly lost their lives amidst this nationwide issue: here’s to justice.”