The New Jersey Assembly took an important step toward greater police accountability by voting yes on a bill that would require independent investigations when someone dies during an encounter with law enforcement. The Senate passed its version of the bill, S1026, in March, meaning that the bill will now go to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy.

If enacted, A3115 would require the Attorney General to supersede the local county prosecutor in investigating and prosecuting any incident in which a person’s death occurred during a police encounter or while in custody.

“The public needs to know law enforcement will be accountable if they exercise the extraordinary powers we give them, including the power to take a life, and this legislation is a pivotal step toward that public assurance,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou. “By shifting investigations of fatal police violence from the prosecutors who work day-in, day-out, with officers to the state’s chief law enforcement officer, this legislation establishes a baseline standard in which investigations will not be tainted by a conflict of interest, or even the perception of one.”

When local prosecutors are expected to investigate officers in those same police departments for potentially criminal conduct, this sudden role-shifting creates a conflict of interest or, at a minimum, a perception of a conflict. Even the perception of a conflict of interest can foster distrust between community residents and law enforcement officers. Lack of trust can lead to residents feeling reluctant to cooperate with officers conducting investigations.

“The public deserves the security of knowing that an investigation into the most serious action officers can take is conducted as impartially as possible, and we thank the members of the Assembly and Senate for passing this important bill,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “When people see a strong protocol in place to keep investigations of fatal police violence impartial and credible, trust can grow between police and the communities they serve.”