Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday signed legislation creating a police licensing system in New Jersey, making the Garden State the 47th in the country to allow for the licensing of police officers and the decertification of those who abuse the badge.
The $6 million program will create uniform statewide standards for hiring and firing police. Under the new law, officers are required to pass a psychological examination and continue to take training courses throughout their career to remain licensed. They would also be prohibited from joining groups that advocate for “the violent overthrow of the government or for discrimination” against protected classes under the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Police officers in New Jersey already undergo a host of training — both from their own departments and outside agencies — but previously departments followed a patchwork of local and state standards. The law applies to current law enforcement officers, who will be subject to new standards from the Police Training Commission, as well as newly hired officers.
The measure (S2742) was long called-for by civil rights advocates, who said a uniform licensing system would make it easier to root out bad cops. But state officials touting the new law on Thursday focused mainly on the benefits to rank-and-file officers.
“Sadly, we know that even one instance of abuse of authority from one officer can taint the honest efforts of an entire department,” Murphy said at a bill-signing event at the Hudson County Public Safety Training Center in Secaucus.
“Being a member of New Jersey’s law enforcement family is a privilege. It’s not a right.”
Spurred in part by an Asbury Park Press series highlighting a system that allowed problem officers to change departments and avoid accountability, the new law had a wide coalition of support. The head of the state chapter of the ACLU called the measure “strong.” The president of New Jersey’s largest union of state troopers said it contained “commonsense police reform.”
Officials said the details of the new system were hammered out by a coalition of law enforcement officers, community leaders and civil rights advocates.
“This was not easy,” Murphy said. “The easier route would have been everyone staying in their respective corners.”
The new system disallows giving a license to a police applicant who has a criminal history or a history of acts of domestic violence, as well as some misdemeanors “involving dishonesty, fraud, or a lack of good moral character.”
Amol Sinha, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, offered measured praise for the reform, noting that more than 15 years ago, one of his predecessors penned an op-ed in The Star-Ledger in favor of licensing police.
“Considering our history with police misconduct in New Jersey, one would think that our state would lead the nation in systems for police accountability,” then- ACLU director Deborah Jacobs wrote in the February 2006 column.
The Garden State has passed a host of police reform measures in recent years, while others have stalled in part due to opposition from police unions and reticence by some lawmakers.
“We cannot and should not aspire merely to catch up,” Sinha said Thursday. “New Jersey must lead on issues of police accountability.”
He called on lawmakers to pass long-stalled measures beefing up civilian review boards, requiring the public disclosure of police internal affairs records and ending the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, which can protect officers found guilty of misconduct from lawsuits and other sanctions.
Speaking to reporters after the bill signing, Murphy would not commit to supporting any of those proposals.
“This one didn’t happen overnight either,” he told NJ Advance Media.
“This bill I signed today was really hard, but folks deserve a lot of credit for coming around and finding common ground. I don’t want to make news on where I think other potential pieces of legislation might go or what they may look like. But that’s something for the Legislature to tackle, and let’s not take away from the fact that this is a big, big day for New Jersey.”
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