Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a measure that requires the New Jersey Attorney general to handle investigation and prosecution in cases of death in police custody.
Under the new law, county prosecutors, who have come under public criticism for being too close to police, will no longer handle cases where someone has died in police custody or following a police encounter. It also requires trial to be held outside the county where the incident occurred.
“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,” Murphy said on Wednesday evening. “I know we are a stronger and safer State when every law enforcement officer feels respected and every community feels valued.”
Demonstrators in Paterson have urged local and state officials to push the governor to sign the bill while protesting the unexplained death of Jameek Lowery.
Lowery arrived at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center unresponsive. He had been physically restrained by police officers in an ambulance en route to the hospital. His death remains unexplained.
His death sparked unrest in Paterson for more than a week.
“I understand this is a hotly debated issue,” mayor Andre Sayegh, who was the recipient of intense criticism following Lowery’s death, said. “However, any opportunities to increase transparency and restore public confidence in law enforcement should be explored.”
Some have criticized the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office for failing to release information about how Lowery died.
Authorities have yet to explain the death of Lowery. His mother, Patrice King, has alleged police and authorities are engaged in covering up for the officers.
“It is vitally important that deadly encounters resulting from police actions are investigated thoroughly and fairly and that the public trusts the findings,” Senate president Steve Sweeney said. “Independent investigations that are not associated with the county in which the death occurred will have more credibility and will help remove any perception of a conflict of interest.”
Sweeney said independent investigations of police-involved deaths will help to build trust between police and the communities they serve.
“While we realize this law addressing law enforcement-related deaths is not a silver bullet, it is indeed a good start to righting a wrong and creating trust between African Americans and law enforcement,” said Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Woodbury. “We are encouraged by the Governor’s commitment to a stronger and fairer New Jersey that includes us.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey praised the governor for signing the bill.
“Signing this bill into law is one of the most important actions Gov. Murphy has taken,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “With this law in place, New Jersey stands as a national leader in preventing the kinds of conflicts of interest that can arise when local prosecutors investigate the local departments they collaborate with so closely. The Governor recognized that providing accountable, independent investigations does not undermine prosecutors, but strengthens community trust in the fairness of investigations.”
Murphy had some reservations about the bill. There were only 14 cases that would have fallen under the new law last year. He said county law enforcement investigators are better situated to conduct the investigations than detectives from the Attorney General’s Office, who may be coming from other parts of the state with little familiarity with the scene of the incident.
Requiring an already understaffed attorney general’s office to investigate all of these cases will create the risk of slower investigations and outcomes. Requiring the presentment of evidence to a grand jury even if a prosecutor does not believe the evidence to be credible presents an ethical dilemma, Murphy said.
“A number of communities believe that the enactment of this bill would help ensure impartial investigations of the few instances when a death occurs during an encounter with law enforcement or while an individual is in custody,” said Murphy. “I have concluded that by eliminating even the appearance of a conflict of interest in this subset of cases, signing this bill will be an important step in improving police-community relations in New Jersey.”