BRIDGETON — The state “fell short” on its responsibility to track police use-of-force incidents, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Wednesday night during a listening session in the basement of Union Baptist Temple.
“We should be doing the type of analysis that the newspapers did for us — highlighting trends and outliers and highlighting those individuals that engage in use of force at a higher rate than others,” Grewal said. “We fell short on our responsibility in that regard for the last 17 years.”
The town-hall style meeting came two months after NJ Advance Media published “The Force Report,” a database that ranks every police department in the state by the number of times they used compliance holds, takedowns, hands/fists, leg or baton strikes, pepper spray or fired a weapon from 2012 to 2016. Within a week after the report was published, Grewal announced his intention to create a system that tracks use-of-force incidents.
Grewal, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and other officials fielded questions and comments from community members about plans to create more transparency and accountability regarding police use of force.
Bridgeton was the first stop on a tour around the state, but additional dates have not been scheduled.
Webb-McRae said that in addition to tracking use-of-force incidents, the tool should track those incidents by race, so officials can understand why people of color are more likely to be involved in an incident where force is utilized.
She said the revision of the state’s use-of-force policy in 2000, which mandated officers to report every incident, was only a first step.
“We need a tool that mines out data, tells us what officers use force at a higher rate in comparison to other officers in a department,” she said. “And we need a tool that tells us which departments use force at a rate higher than their counterparts.”
Walter L. Hudson Sr., chairman of the National Awareness Alliance, asked about sustained reform and police accountability, adding he wants local prosecutors out of investigations into police-involved shootings.
“How can a fox investigate another fox over a chicken killing?” he asked, bringing up a bill that would centralize all police-involved shooting investigations at the state level.
The bill was passed by both houses, state Senate and Assembly on Dec. 17 and is waiting for either a veto or a signature from Gov. Phil Murphy.
“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.”
He added the current system allows an immediate response to the scene and the first few minutes and hours are critical. In the current proposal, the state has to respond, which could take hours while evidence, witnesses and video disappears.
While questions and comments regarding active cases were off limits during the session, defense attorney Al Wheeler asked about the investigation into the death of 19-year-old Jacob Servais, who was fatally shot in November by a Cape May County Prosecutor’s detective in Vineland during an investigation into a violent crime.
Grewal said the Attorney General’s Office is investigating.
There have been other high-profile use-of-force incidents over the past year in Cumberland County. 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. And earlier this month, Webb-McRae announced an investigation into an officer from the Vineland Police Department after a call to a local hospital left a Millville man in critical condition.
Steven Young, of Atlantic City, said there is no trust or accountability between officials and residents from the state down.
“We have a serious problem when it comes to trust,” Young said. “How can you ask a young man to trust a police officer?”
Grewal replied that trust, transparency and accountability are the goals, and that the state has even gone so far as to attempt to buy the data from NJ Advance Media.
“The press had a 17-month head start on us in this project,” Grewal said. “We had 17 years where we did not utilize this data the right way. My commitment is that we are looking at this data, we are going to utilize it. Moving forward, we are going to create a new system.”