Ken Serrano Asbury Park Press
A bill to establish the licensing of police officers in New Jersey cleared the Senate and Assembly on Wednesday with broad support in the two chambers.
The Senate passed the measure 40-0; the Assembly, 70-8.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who pitched the effort in May as a way to rebuild "the bonds of trust between the police and residents, especially in Black and brown communities" by making it easier to get rid of rogue officers, could sign the measure into law as early as Thursday.
Police licensing is a broad catch-all that obscures some of the details of the process of removing a police officer from policing, which varies around the country. The more exact term is police decertification.
Technically, New Jersey already has a decertification process. You receive certification when you graduate from the police academy and lose it three years after you leave a law enforcement agency for whatever reason.
Now, decertification would come as a direct result of police misconduct under the bill.
Licensing was one of several recommendations the Asbury Park Press made in its police misconduct series “Protecting the Shield” that were embraced by then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal after its publication in January 2018. The series highlighted the fact that New Jersey stood nearly alone in the nation in failing to license police officers.
The disqualifications in the legislation for recruits or current officers seeking a license in the legislation are similar:
Anyone convicted of a crime anywhere in the United States, an act of domestic violence or an offense that would preclude the applicant from carrying a firearm.
Anyone who committed a disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly persons offense involving dishonesty, fraud, or a lack of good moral character unless the commission determines it to be minor in nature.
Two or more DWIs or reckless driving tickets. One of either does not disqualify an applicant.
Being named in a domestic violence restraining order or an extreme risk protective order, temporary or permanent.
Being the member of a hate group or a group that espouses or promotes the overthrow of local, state or federal government.
Showing support for one of those groups through social media, comments or other behavior.
For existing officers, the following provisions are added to the disqualifiers:
Knowingly making misleading, deceptive or untrue representations in the practice of being a law enforcement officer or in any document connected to police work, or practicing fraud or deceit or intentionally making a false statement in obtaining a license to be an officer.
Engaging in any unprofessional, unethical, deceptive, or deleterious conduct or practice harmful to the public, which includes: any sustained finding that the law enforcement officer filed a false report or submitted a false certification in any matter, mishandled or destroyed evidence, was untruthful or showed a lack of candor, or showed bias toward a particular group.
Recruits must submit all of their social media accounts to authorities before getting a license.
The American Civil Liberties Union and social justice advocacy groups have endorsed the bill, a rare instance of those advocates and the police agreeing.
"That was the first time I walked into a committee hearing and we were on the same side as the police," Joe Johnson, policy counsel for the ACLU-NJ, said of the Assembly Law and Public Safety hearing earlier this month.
The ACLU, which has worked on getting police licensing in New Jersey since 2006, and other organizations pushed to have the legislation include participation in the National Decertification Registry. They won that amendment to the bill. The registry acts as a clearing house for officers from around the country who have been decertified and a shield against rogue cops moving to another state.
Under the bill passed Wednesday, the registry must be checked before someone is hired as a law enforcement officer in New Jersey and it must be notified of an New Jersey officer who has been decertified.
But Johnson and other advocates have expressed other misgivings about the legislation that did not lead to amendments.
Racquel Romans-Henry, policy director for Salvation and Social Justice, said the legislation lacks enforcement mechanisms for reporting requirements.
"Currently there is no penalty if a police chief simply refuses to submit information," she said at the June 13 Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing.
Romans-Henry also urged the committee to broaden the base of the Police Training Commission.
The bill appoints the Police Training Commission as the group responsible for setting minimum standards for applicants and procedures and requirements for suspension, revocations and renewals.
It currently includes 18 positions: 15 of them connected to law enforcement, two members of the public and the commissioner of education.
"The current composition of the commission is more law enforcement heavy than what we have seen in other states that recently passed decertification," she said.
She recommended adding others, such as public defenders, civil rights attorneys, social workers, retired judges, tribal members and members of the public with experience in oversight and auditing of law enforcement agencies to "ensure viewpoint diversity."
She urged the same for the committee that will be appointed under the commission to hear cases.
The bill expands the commission to include two more members of the public and the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey.
Johnson said some of those concerns with the legislation could still be worked out when the state Attorney General's Office puts it through the regulatory review process, which gets into the details of the law.
"There are still plenty of opportunities to tweak this," he said.
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