Without the ability to subpoena witnesses and evidence, the impact of citizen-led boards is limited, supporters said. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

State lawmakers advanced a measure Monday that supporters call a key piece of criminal justice reform, one that would expand accountability for bad cops by giving some civilian review boards subpoena power.

Some New Jersey communities, including Newark, already have such independent, citizen-led boards, which investigate complaints against police and recommend discipline. But without the ability to subpoena witnesses and evidence, their impact is limited, reformers say.

Members of the Assembly’s community development and affairs committee heard almost two hours of fervent testimony Monday, mostly from supporters who said the bill is needed because police fail to police themselves fairly.

“People do not trust the police nor the government who controls them,” Jersey City resident Erica Walker said. “The people need the power and authority to protect themselves from corruption when the system in its current state does not.”

James Brown lives in Paterson, where the police department was taken over by the state last spring after a string of police brutality incidents, including the March slaying of anti-violence activist Najee Seabrooks. Brown told committee members police killed his grandfather and uncle, and he and his neighbors “are tired of the abuse and the oppression of our people at the hands of those given the power to harm us without any consequences.”

“We all have the right to live without the fear that any interaction with the police will be our last. We shouldn’t fear we will be shot in the back while running or shot in the chest dead because of a mental health crisis,” Brown said.

James Brown, a Paterson resident and founder of the faith-based reentry group From Street to Christ, testifies on Dec. 11, 2023, in support of civilian review boards with subpoena power before the Assembly’s community development and affairs committee at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The committee agreed to advance the bill by a 3-1 vote, with Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis (R-Union) voting no without comment.

Several amendments to the bill kept reformers from fully rejoicing, including one provision that allows only Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Trenton to create the boards under a five-year pilot program and another that removes an $800,000 appropriation in the original bill to fund training for new board members.

“Each of the 564 municipalities in the state of New Jersey deserves the right to decide whether they want to implement strong civilian oversight of police, not just the largest municipalities,” said Joe Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Examples of police misconduct and brutality exist in literally every corner of New Jersey, so civilian oversight is important everywhere.”

Johnson and other reformers also objected to the bill’s requirement that boards turn over misconduct complaints to police internal affairs investigators — and give them a 120-day head start to investigate.

Forcing boards to wait to investigate tells the public that the boards are “secondary,” said Udi Ofer, a visiting professor at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and a former ACLU attorney.

“You’re sending a strong signal here that’s saying, ‘Look, the police department’s internal affairs is number one, and they get to review this for four months, and then you can come as the civilian review board and maybe get to supplement some of that.”

Involving internal affairs investigators in civil review boards’ work could undercut boards’ credibility among community members, many of whom don’t trust police, Johnson added.

Such distrust isn’t unfounded, Ofer said. People file about 14,500 complaints a year against police in New Jersey, or about 39 per day, Ofer said, citing data from the state Attorney General’s Office. Yet just 6% result in serious discipline, Ofer said.

“That is how internal affairs is working right now. You can draw your own judgments based on that, but I do find it problematic — when we’re sitting in the City of Trenton right now that just two months ago, the Justice Department came and said that it is opening an investigation looking into systemic violations of civil liberties and civil rights — to somehow paint a picture that we have enough accountability in New Jersey right now, because the Justice Department certainly doesn’t agree, and I don’t agree either,” he said.

Despite such concerns, advocates were so happy the long-fought bill advanced that many swarmed Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), its prime sponsor and a committee member, afterward to pose for photographs with her.

McKnight and the committee’s chair, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), agreed the bill might be “imperfect.”

But, McKnight added, “it brings us hope. It moves us in the right direction. Today is a day where we can move forward with legislation that can move the needle and make progress.”

Not everyone celebrated.

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, urged committee members to vote against the bill, saying they can’t “legislate good cops.”

“We can do this all day long. We could come up with 50 other police bills and it’s not going to prevent bad cops from leaking into our system,” Colligan said.

He complained of “anti-police sentiment that has caused a recruiting crisis nationwide.”

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association, testifies on Dec. 11, 2023, against a bill that would give civilian review boards subpoena power at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

He also pointed out that all four cities that would be in the bill’s pilot program have indicted officers for misconduct. New Jersey’s law enforcement officers are the “most overseen” of any other state, with internal affairs units, a new police licensing law, the Office of the Attorney General’s public integrity and accountability office, and the state’s early warning system that flags struggling or problematic cops, he said.

He listed several other concerns that led to a testy exchange with McKnight, who responded to each concern and said: “You have not even acknowledged what people are going through … I find it disingenuous that you’re here just supporting police when we’re supposed to be supporting everyone. So thank you for your concerns and your testimony, but I’m not buying it.”

The Senate version of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), hasn’t been scheduled yet for a hearing in the Senate’s law and public safety committee.

Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.