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Police
Fatal police shooting investigations to be covered by AG, not local prosecutors

A new law that shifts investigations into fatal police-involved shootings from local prosecutors to the state Attorney General’s Office is being lauded by advocacy groups looking for transparency, while the state’s top law-enforcement official has been vocally opposed to the measure.

Advocates say the law is the first step in improving the relationship between police and the residents they serve after high-profile police shooting investigations sparked criticism about conflicts of interest.

However, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said it will create a risk of slower investigations and may send a message that county prosecutors cannot be trusted to handle these types of cases impartially.

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said in a statement he was opposed to the law, adding he believes county prosecutor’s offices are in the best position to respond to and investigate officer-involved shootings.

“However, now that the Legislature has acted and Gov. Murphy has signed the bill into law, we will certainly comply with it and assist the Office of the Attorney General in any way possible to ensure that the integrity of the investigations of officer-involved shootings is maintained,” he said.

The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae declined to comment.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment after the bill was signed into law.

The decision to appoint an independent agency to handle investigations of fatal police-involved shootings is not uncommon in the U.S., experts say, and helps bolster trust in the criminal justice system.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the bill “will be an important step in improving police-community relations in New Jersey.”

Grewal voiced his concerns about the proposed bill last month in Bridgeton during a public forum on police use of force.

“That is a bill, that, in my estimation, upends a system that delivers everything the bill promises and more,” Grewal said. “The current system that we have in place now assures that, if there’s an officer-involved shooting, whether it’s fatal or non-fatal, that the county prosecutor responds.”

Grewal argued that the first few hours after a fatal incident are critical, and that a state response could take hours while evidence, witnesses and video disappears.

Previously, the department whose officer was involved in the death would be shut out of the investigation, turning it over to the county prosecutor, who would check to make sure there are no conflicts of interest.

If there was a conflict, the prosecutor was mandated to report it to the state Division of Criminal Justice, which could reassign the case to a neighboring county prosecutor or to the state.

J.C. Lore, a clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden, said requiring the potential party to have the conflict to self-report the conflict could have the appearance of impropriety, and it’s the perception that counts.

“The most important reason to do it is to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Lore said. “When you have a somewhat independent body reviewing that incident, it gives the community more trust in our criminal justice system.”

Lore said avoiding conflicts of interest gives credibility to the investigation and increases community trust.

“If there is a downside, the local police and the local prosecutors do have more intimate knowledge of what’s going on in that locality, which could aid in the initial speed of the investigation, but long-term I don’t think it’s worth it because of the appearance of a conflict,” Lore said.

Richard Smith, president of the State Conference of the NAACP, said the organization has been pushing for the bill to become law for half a decade.

“It’s important because hopefully it will restore trust to the community,” Smith said. “At the end of the day — and this is not a knock on law enforcement — but we have an issue when it comes to police and community relations.”

The new law would have only governed 14 cases last year, Murphy said in a statement.

There have been several fatal police-involved shootings in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area in the past year.

In June, Timothy Deal, 32, was fatally shot by Atlantic City police after lunging at an officer with a knife. Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner ruled it a justified use of force.

In July, Rashaun Washington, 37, of Camden, was fatally shot by Vineland police after he threatened to trigger an explosive device that would kill himself and several officers. The investigation is still ongoing under the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office.

In November, Jacob Servais, 19, of Millville, was fatally shot by a Cape May County prosecutor’s detective in Vineland during an investigation into a violent crime. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating.


Cape_may
Why one of Avalon’s oldest homes is sitting in an EHT storage yard

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — In a muddy storage yard, with the sound of machinery in the distance, Adrienne Scharnikow stood eye level with the third floor of her childhood summer home.

It’s part of what was once one of Avalon’s oldest homes, an 1895 Victorian that survived two lightning strikes and the March Storm of 1962.

There are only a handful left in Avalon.

So when it faced demolition last year, Scharnikow said she had to save it.

“I just couldn’t stand to see a wrecking ball take it down,” said Scharnikow, 46, of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, as she jumped onto the small balcony.

A developer bought the property in November 2017 with plans to build a new, million-dollar mansion in its place. Scharnikow paid $1 for the house and hired a moving company to tear it down piece by piece before reassembling it in a storage yard 40 miles away at a cost of $150,000.

Cape May will be its final resting place, a city the family picked for its focus on historic preservation and rows of colorful Victorian homes.

Both Scharnikow and her husband, Joe, agree the house will blend in well in Cape May, a city that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. While other shore towns replaced quaint cottages and bungalows with McMansions, Cape May fought to have its history preserved.

The Scharnikows are awaiting permits to reconstruct the house on a lot on Texas Avenue. They’ve spent months going over paperwork and reading through zoning regulations.

Realizing they’d need help, the couple hired a general contractor in August, followed by two engineering firms.

“I know it’s really rough now,” she said, “but this place will be gorgeous when it’s done.”

The home’s first floor is feet away from the third floor, hoisted a foot off the ground on piling cribs. A slightly rusted bathtub sits on the wraparound porch. Inside, a stack of 20 stained-glass windows lies horizontally inside the dimly lit home.

The white and yellow paint is chipping after weathering harsh winds, snow and rain for the past year. Before the move, Scharnikow said, the shingles will be replaced with new siding that mimics the original pattern.

Other historic aspects will be saved, such as the original wood banister. Scharnikow said Cape May nonprofit the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities asked to have the house included in its history tours of the city.

The daunting project worries Scharnikow. The house has been without a foundation for 12 months, making it vulnerable to storms. She rattles off her greatest fears: the plaster walls cracking, the interior getting soaked or the floors giving in.

“The whole winter, I’ve been worried,” she said. “There’s a lot of risk.”

By June, the family hopes the home will be relocated. Trucks will move the pieces very carefully down the Garden State Parkway to Exit 0 at about 5 mph.

A zoning permit was approved in November. The next step is getting an approval from the Cape May Board of Engineers and obtaining a construction permit. Then, they can start the foundation. More than 50 piling will be driven 25 feet deep into the lot. The Scharnikows declined to say how much the project would cost.

“We’ve had engineering firms and an architect and done soil boring tests,” said Joe Scharnikow. “It’ll all work out.”

Cape May homes were often on the move in the past, said Harry Bellangy, president and historian of the city’s historical society. Buttercup Cottage, for instance, was once located in Cape May Point but was moved to Columbia Avenue in Cape May about three miles away.

Depending on the distance, the process could take hours or days, he said.

“It was not uncommon for someone to say, ‘Honey, we’re moving, and we’re taking the house with us,’” Bellangy said.


News
Feds say NJ Transit doesn't need its OK to reopen Atlantic City line

For weeks, one of the reasons given for the continued shutdown of the Atlantic City Rail Line was that NJ Transit was awaiting review and approval from the Federal Railroad Administration for its application for an “alternative schedule.”

The FRA says that is not true.

“NJ Transit does not need approval from FRA to reinstate commuter rail service on the lines where NJT had voluntarily decided to temporarily reduce or suspend service, including the Atlantic City Line,” an FRA spokesperson said in a statement. “FRA is in the process of reviewing NJT’s proposed alternative schedule and supporting documentation, and FRA will issue its decision in accordance with the statutory 90-day review period.”

NJ Transit said it is indeed waiting for the FRA’s approval, but only to be sure.

“We do not want to bring a service back only to have it become unreliable and to have to adjust it again,” said Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokeswoman.

Since the line’s early September shutdown for installation of federally mandated safety mechanisms, NJ Transit has said its plan was to reopen the line in early 2019. And after the agency said it completed a critical phase in December, there was hope an announcement of the line’s reopening was imminent.

Then, on Jan. 25, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett announced the line would be closed until at least the second quarter of 2019.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Phil Murphy put the onus on the FRA, saying NJ Transit needs its “approval for a reboot” of service to lines that were shut down.

Snyder said the FRA’s approval — necessary or not — is not NJ Transit’s only roadblock.

“The FRA approval is one of a number of factors in the overall evaluation of service restoration as the findings may influence how NJ Transit approaches the restoration sequence,” Snyder said. “In addition to the FRA’s approval, NJ Transit continues to address a continuing shortage of locomotive engineers, as well as equipment availability, as Positive Train Control installations, maintenance inspections and testing continues.”

On Jan. 17, Murphy met with 102 trainees hired last year to be locomotive engineers. There are six classes training new hires at the moment, the most in the agency’s history, Murphy’s office said.

Commuters who rode the line before September to as far as Philadelphia were rerouted to buses and given 25 percent discounts on their fare. The discount — previously extended through the end of January — will now be in place until the line is up and running, the agency said.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said he would make calls to try to get answers, to “hold their feet to the fire.” In early January, he wrote a public letter to Corbett with Assemblyman John Armato asking for a clear start date.

“It seems like right now that NJ Transit is giving us excuses and, quite frankly, lies,” Mazzeo said Tuesday. “Now I’m wondering … is there a bigger issue going on that the Atlantic City Rail Line isn’t going to be running again?”

The revelation that NJ Transit wasn’t beholden to the FRA’s approval felt like another blow to commuters, he said.

“Apparently that wasn’t the truth at all and it has nothing to do with the feds inspecting it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. The riders are going to be the ones hurting from this.”

The statutory 90-day period for the review of NJ Transit’s application ends March 14, a spokesperson said, but the FRA hopes to finish it as soon as possible.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, said the FRA’s clarification raises questions about NJ Transit reliability.

“Again: Are we getting accurate information from NJ Transit?” Van Drew asked. “Of course they told us that (the FRA) was restricting us, that they couldn’t (reopen the line) because of the federal government … and then we found out that, no, that isn’t accurate.”

Many commuters in South Jersey need the line to get to work, so the Atlantic City line should be restored before others, Van Drew said, but “most of all, they need to be told the truth.”