The ACLU-NJ applauded Governor Murphy for signing legislation requiring independent investigations and prosecutions when someone dies during an encounter with law enforcement or in police custody. Effective immediately, the New Jersey Attorney General will handle investigations and prosecutions in such instances. People of color disproportionately bear the brunt of police violence to devastating consequences, as Star-Ledger reporters uncovered in “The Force Report,” released in late 2018.
“This law provides an important check on police officers’ immense power, which is especially critical when that power results in the tragic loss of life at the hands of law enforcement,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha, who testified in support of the legislation. “The heartbreaking death of Jameek Lowery in Paterson, as well as the pain the community has experienced in searching for answers, demonstrates the necessity of impartial investigations. Families experiencing tragedy deserve to know that investigations into the deaths of their loved ones will not have a cloud of potential conflict hanging over them.”
Under New Jersey’s previous system, local county prosecutors were often expected to investigate the same police departments they often cooperate with on other cases. At a minimum, these circumstances would foster perceived conflicts of interest, leading to distrust between community residents and local law enforcement. With the signing of the independent prosecutor bill, A3115/S1036, the Garden State begins to remedy these tensions and increase police accountability.
Advocates pushed the state to go further by mandating independent prosecutors after any instance of serious police violence, not only encounters that ultimately prove fatal. Several states, including New York, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, require more impartial prosecutors for fatal police violence. In Wisconsin, state agencies investigate nearly all non-fatal shootings by local police.
“Independent investigations of police brutality should not be dictated by whether or not the victim survives,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou. “Governor Murphy and the Legislature have established an important check on police power and provided a measure of reassurance to families and communities who are suffering. But our leaders must build on this progress by requiring independent investigations of all incidents of police violence that cause devastating injuries. We will not stop calling for accountability until we see the reforms in criminal justice that New Jersey needs.”