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NJ’s attorney general confronts gun violence, corruption, police reform — and a paradox

By Nancy Solomon

New Jersey State Attorney General Matt Platkin is faced with a paradox: He says his top priority is helping local police departments reduce crime and keep the citizens of the state safe. But at the same time, Platkin says he wants to reduce the presence of law enforcement in communities with high-crime rates and where police use of force is a problem.

“We have to make sure that as we are dealing with the rise in crime that we're not taking steps backward on building trust between law enforcement and the communities,” Platkin said. “Not only do I think that'd be the wrong thing to do, I don't think that is how you actually encourage and promote true public safety.”

At 36 years old, Platkin is the second-youngest attorney general ever confirmed in New Jersey history. In January, he took over a branch of government that has broad powers and 8,000 employees. The agency has come under criticism for many years for not pursuing big corruption cases or taking over local police agencies that have become dysfunctional. But in his first year, Platkin has moved quickly to take on corruption, police dysfunction, police use of force, and target the gun violence that has long animated his work.

“My job, first and foremost, is being entrusted to keep people safe,” Platkin told Gothamist.

Platkin was just finishing his first year in office at the end of January when I had the chance to spend a day with him. It was six hours of non-stop events and meetings. In New Jersey, the Attorney General is appointed by the governor and then confirmed by the State Senate. Once confirmed, the top law enforcement official cannot be fired by the governor, and has broad powers, including the authority to take over any investigation, police department or prosecutor’s office in the state. The attorney general also supervises the state police, and takes on consumer protection, white-collar crime, political corruption and corporate malfeasance.

Platkin said his primary focus is reducing crime while also reining in the police presence in communities plagued by crime. To that end, he meets weekly with the top brass at the state police, who have a data analysis project that examines every shooting in the state by the Investigations Branch of the New Jersey State Police.

Local police officers collect all bullet casings from crime scenes and send them to the state police. The investigations branch obtained technology in May 2021 that allows it to analyze and track every gun used in a criminal shooting, and that new data led the state police to a new revelation.

“So we're looking at a very, very small number of people, that's what the data is telling us. A very small number of people, using a few guns in a lot of incidents,” said Lt. Colonel Joseph Brennan, commander of the investigations division.

The bullet casings, combined with arrest records, allow them to map not just where the same gun has been used in multiple incidents, and to track who might be involved as either a victim or shooter. And often, the victim in one shooting becomes the suspect in another one.

The number of shootings has gone down since the state police started the data analysis project, Brennan said. In 2022, there were 857 shootings in New Jersey. For the previous 10 years, except for a couple of anomalies, shootings hovered above 1,100 each year.

During a meeting between the state police leadership and Platkin, Brennan connected his computer to a large screen and walked Platkin through the latest numbers. In 2022, their analysis found, a tiny percentage of the 76,000 people arrested in New Jersey were involved in a large number of shootings. Specifically, 511 people or about .007% of those arrested were connected to about 1,500 shootings.

“When you see this data and you see 511 individuals driving a huge chunk of it, it's a solvable problem," Platkin said.

The way Plakin sees it, there’s no need to flood neighborhoods with police officers if such a small group of repeat offenders is responsible for so many of the shootings.

“And when you connect that with the violence intervention work we're doing, the civil litigation that we're doing to make companies feel some financial pain for putting these guns in the marketplace without the proper controls, you realize it’s solvable," he said.

Motivated by gun violence

The issue of gun violence is not new to Platkin. He says it was one of the first issues he got involved in as a teenager, when he advocated for renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, which ended in 2004. Gun violence “is the issue that has motivated me more than anything in my professional life,” he said.

It makes sense. Platkin is a millennial who grew up with school shootings and watched the rise in mass shootings.

Platkin attended both undergraduate and law school at Stanford University, and after running a city council campaign in San Antonio and working in a public policy job in Washington, he returned to New Jersey.

“I didn't know anybody in the political world in New Jersey. But through some networking, I ended up meeting Phil Murphy,” Platkin said.

Murphy, who was first elected as governor in 2017, wasn’t yet a declared candidate, but the two men liked each other, and Platkin offered to volunteer on his nascent campaign.

“He was the head of policy, not in the legal lane,” Murphy said. After he became governor, Murphy appointed Platkin as his chief counsel. “But he was the policy guy, and that's where we bonded. We bonded over the sort of ‘stronger, fairer’ agenda. We need to grow this economy. We need to make it fairer, and we need to run the state responsibly again.”

A mistake was made

Platkin served as the governor's chief counsel for almost three years. He took a two-year detour in private practice, and then Platkin was nominated by Murphy to be the attorney general. He ran into some opposition from state Senate Republicans, most notably about an incident in his first year as chief counsel that he admits was a mistake.

A state employee who had been a Murphy campaign volunteer, Katie Brennan, went public with an accusation that she had been sexually assaulted by a campaign staffer, who was also hired by the Murphy administration. Brennan said she had gone to Platkin seeking help getting the man fired.

Platkin alerted the chief ethics officer and directed her to inform the Office of the Attorney General and seek an independent investigation. But he didn’t inform the governor, and that was perceived as a way to insulate his boss. Platkin said he didn’t inform the governor, because he believed it was his duty to keep the information limited to as few people as possible, but he said at his confirmation hearing that he wishes he had told Murphy.

The Senate voted to confirm Platkin.

A busy first year

In little more than a year as attorney general, Platkin has criminally charged a police officer for shooting a Black suspect in the back; he’s taken over the Paterson Police Department; and he’s won a case he personally argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court that gives people with previous marijuana convictions the ability to operate a cannabis store.

“We consider him a great partner,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice and the pastor of the Mount Zion AME Baptist Church in Trenton. Boyer has been critical of policing in New Jersey, and has also spoken out publicly against Murphy.

“He's done a lot in a very short time. He's had a lot of discussions with several of us on the community side,” Boyer said. “So we feel like we're being informed. We feel like we're having substantive conversations.”

It’s not that Boyer isn’t critical. He wants to see community intervention funded at the same level as policing. He is also calling on the state's new restrictions on the use of police force to be made into law, so it's not something that can change with successive attorneys general. And he wants chokeholds and the use of police dogs to be banned.

“There's no good situation, particularly when dealing with Black people, that German shepherds should be allowed to be a means of use of force,” Boyer said. “The history is horrible with that, and it's just so racially outrageous to ever have the ability to use canines on Black people.”

It’s a challenging job for anyone, let alone the youngest person to ever be confirmed. But Chris Porrino, a former attorney general under then-Gov. Chris Christie, says he’s no pushover.

“He is tough,” Porrino said. “There are a lot of people pushing and pulling and trying to get you to do things and trying to get you to see things their way, and it's very easy to go along to get along and that's not really the way the job should be done, in my view,” Porrino said.

He added: “And I don't think that's the way Matt is doing it. I think he's really staying true to what he believes in and he is doing a nice job.”

A ‘Life’ Expose

New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General has a storied history.

State leaders were embarrassed by an expose in “Life” magazine in 1967 that detailed how the mob had infiltrated legitimate businesses, unions and government in New Jersey. The Legislature responded by creating a statewide crime-fighting unit that successfully took on the mob, jailing many of its leaders and the elected officials who enabled them.

But over the last 20 years, the number of racketeering and political corruption cases has waned. In confidential reports to incoming governors, Democrat Jon Corzine in 2005 and Republican Christie in 2009, their transition committees recommended changes to the Office of the Attorney General.

“It's been reported that the corruption unit has been unable to undertake certain high-profile and complex corruption prosecutions because allegedly attorneys and investigators have feared political reprisal and breaches in confidentiality,” the report to Christie said. The committee recommended boosting resources to investigate political corruption.

A former prosecutor and deputy attorney general who is legendary in the state’s legal circles, Ed Stier, has made it his mission to restore the agency. Stier meets with every new attorney general, and always brings with him a copy of the Life magazine article.

“The best attorneys general have viewed the office as a public trust, have put aside political self-interest, their own self-interest, and the interests of the governor, and have exercised the power of the office in ways that are creative,” Stier said.

When Stier met with Platkin, he liked what he saw.

“I view Matt as somebody who really understands and respects the office and is prepared to use his powers solely for the interests of the public, prepared to take on anybody who deserves to be investigated or prosecuted regardless of who they are or how much power they wield,” Stier said.

Platkin says he’s mindful of the office’s past, and clear about its priorities going forward.

“My focus is on ensuring that everyone, whether it's a corporate polluter, a social media giant, a bank, a Wall Street tycoon or a public official, if you break our laws – the same way someone who pulls a trigger and kills an innocent victim or steals a car – we are committed to showing that you too will be held accountable.”

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