ATLANTIC CITY — The state will move quickly against police departments found to use racial profiling or other means of targeting minorities, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told a crowd at the St. James A.M.E. Church on Monday night.
Grewal spoke at a gathering sponsored by the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP and attended by about 100 people who asked questions about police-involved shootings; how to diversify the Atlantic City Police Department, especially in the officer ranks; and use of force by police officers.
“We have zero tolerance, absolutely zero tolerance, to racially influenced policing,” said Grewal, the first Sikh-American attorney general in the nation.
He cited his office’s recent moves against the police director of Elizabeth in Union County, who is alleged to have used derogatory speech with staff members.
Grewal said his office is working to develop a use-of-force database on all the police departments in the state in the wake of the Star-Ledger newspaper creating such a database by filing 506 public-records requests and collecting 72,677 use-of-force reports.
Grewal said his office has purchased the database from the newspaper, which covers 2012 through 2016, and found that 10% of officers are responsible for 38% of use-of-force incidents. He said the state will develop its own database for years after 2016, which it will share in part with the public.
“My hope is an online reporting system will achieve goals of trust and accountability,” Grewal said. “I hope it starts to fill the divide (between the police and communities) with a degree of trust.”
Audience members submitted questions on index cards, which were read by moderators.
One attendee asked, “What is the definition of ‘excessive force’ by a police officer?”
“I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer,” Grewal said. “It’s a measure of reasonableness and proportionality. Certainly there is a continuum as danger to the officer continues.”
In addressing how to prevent bias of officers from harming minority communities, Grewal said one way to improve the system is to have law enforcement officers reflect the communities they serve.
“The most visible face of law enforcement in the state is the New Jersey State Police,” Grewal said. “The application process (to become a state trooper) opens today. From April 29 to May 12, we are taking applications for future troopers.”
He said the pool that is developed from that process will feed the next three or four State Police classes.
“This is a unique opportunity to take the message back to your homes, to push someone who might be thinking about it to become part of that pool,” Grewal said.
When asked why there aren’t more South Asians represented in the officer ranks of the Atlantic City Police Department, Grewal said that will change with time.
“I don’t know about the makeup in this department, but in my experience growing up in an Asian-American family, if I went to mom and dad and said, ‘I want to be a cop,’ it probably would not be received too well,” Grewal said.
He said they came to the U.S. so their children would get an education, become a doctor or other high-level professional.
“There is not a push to have young people go into public service,” Grewal said. “I think that is starting to change. With time, as we start to fill ranks at the entry level ... eventually they will work their way up.”