By Scott A. Coffina
The horrific and inexcusable killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while three of his fellow officers watched and did nothing as a subdued man’s life was being choked out of him has started a passionate national conversation about the relationship of police officers and the communities they serve.
New Jersey’s police officers and State Troopers are among the best trained in the nation, and our residents every day benefit from the most progressive policing policies in the country. It is gratifying to see the various reforms being proposed across the country and be able to say repeatedly that in New Jersey, “we already do that,” keeping in mind that we can always do more. Policies and training programs instituted over the past four years include the following, which are specifically aimed at making police encounters safer for everybody and improving Law Enforcement’s relationship with our communities:
- Training on Police Response and De-escalation Techniques for Individuals with Special Needs
- Training on Cultural Diversity, De-escalation, and Bias Crime Reporting
- Training on Use of Force, twice annually
- Training on Vehicle Pursuits, twice annually
- Crisis Intervention Training to de-escalate situations involving people experiencing a mental health crisis; Burlington County has been conducting this training for 10 years; more than 350 of our officers and troopers have received this week-long training
- Policies and training on the safe use of CED’s (Conducted Energy Devices, commonly known as “tasers”), less-than-lethal force that can prevent the escalation of a confrontation to the point where deadly force might be necessary by police to protect themselves or others
- A policy requiring the expedited release of video recordings of deadly force incidents involving the police, to increase transparency
- The implementation of mandatory “Early Warning Systems” to identify potential “red flags” in an officer’s performance and allow for early intervention by their department to get them counseling, training, or whatever other assistance they might need
- Updated statewide Internal Affairs practices and procedures, including a mandate that departments provide access to the Internal Affairs file of an officer who has applied to another department, to enable the hiring agency to do its due diligence in hiring officers with integrity
- Implementation of the Attorney General’s 21/21 Community Policing program, through which County Prosecutor’s Offices regularly engage with the public on subjects of community interest; in Burlington County, we have hosted community programs on use-of-force investigations, bias crimes, juvenile justice and the opioid crisis
- A 2019 that law placed the investigation of all fatal use of force incidents under the authority of the Attorney General’s Office.
Despite the understandable anger by people of all backgrounds at the merciless killing of George Floyd, the many protests throughout our State – in big cities and rural towns alike – have been passionate but mostly peaceful. I do not believe this is by accident, but rather reflects a reservoir of goodwill between New Jersey residents and our law enforcement agencies resulting from the substantial investment made in training, policies, and community outreach that have produced law enforcement conduct that is overwhelmingly fair. This is not to suggest that bad incidents do not happen – police officers, like the rest of us, can make grievous mistakes or break the law in ways that could lead to tragic outcomes, and when they do, we hold them accountable. No one is above the law.
That said, while our protests, thankfully, have not been violent, they certainly have been passionate, exuding anger, frustration and sadness. We as leaders in the law enforcement community must come to terms with these raw emotions displayed by the people we have sworn to protect and serve, and ask ourselves how we can do better. Because for all of our training, all of our progressive policies, all of our careful hiring, and all of our community policing activities, I nevertheless have African American moms telling me they are afraid that their sons will be hurt, or worse, in an encounter with the police.
As a law enforcement executive who has seen countless acts of compassion, heroism and respect by police officers towards members of the community, this is heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking that anyone should fear that their loved one will have an encounter with the very people whose sworn duty – and natural inclination, for almost all officers – is to protect them.
We as a community need to grapple with this startling disconnect. Because even when law enforcement officers’ actions are just, justice is imperfect unless people not only are treated fairly, but that they feel they are being treated fairly by those who have been entrusted to enforce our laws.
Law Enforcement needs to ask these moms “why” they feel this way and we need to listen to the answers. Accordingly, in the upcoming days, I will announce our next 21/21 Community Policing event, which will be an online town hall forum for members of our community to speak directly to a panel of police chiefs, police chaplains and me. I frequently have invited the public to raise any complaints about police conduct with the local chiefs, or with me directly, at 609-265-5034. At this upcoming listening session, it is not just “formal” complaints we want to hear, but rather the conversations at the barber shops, nail salons and neighborhood barbecues about police use-of-force or other actions that may not be misconduct, but that nevertheless feed this fear. In short, we want to know what are the concerns in our communities about the police – not in Minneapolis, Louisville, or Baltimore, but right here in Burlington County – that make parents fearful for their black sons, and your ideas for how we can do better.
We are fortunate to have come far enough with our policies and training to be able to take that next step into exploring this persistent disconnect between law enforcement’s perception of ourselves as professionals deeply committed to protecting and serving all people of the community, and that portion of our community that does not trust police officers to protect them. Accordingly, I am working towards arranging implicit bias training for all law enforcement officers in Burlington County. We all carry unconscious biases with us, shaped by experience, family, news, friends, education, pop culture, and countless other inputs. Not necessarily limited to race, hidden bias also could shape one’s view of people of a certain socioeconomic status, religion or sexual orientation. It even shapes how people view others who look like themselves. Everyone has unconscious biases, and if we are being honest, these hidden perceptions by a civilian can shape an encounter with a police officer as much as the officer’s unconscious biases do.
However, there is little doubt that unconscious bias can be an impediment to impartial policing and perhaps contribute to the distrust of the police that exists by some members of the community. Bringing these biases out of the recesses of an officer’s mind can help them assess a situation more objectively, and enhance their decision-making and interactions with the public.
Already, all our State Troopers, Prosecutor’s Office Detectives and Assistant Prosecutors, and some of our local police departments have had implicit bias training during the past few years. Will having all 900 sworn officers in Burlington County also receive that training be a panacea to Law Enforcement’s strained relationship with some members of our community? I don’t know. But it will be one more tool to enhance the already-outstanding professionalism of our police officers. And we should use every tool at our disposal to put those moms’ minds at ease.
Scott A. Coffina is the County Prosecutor for Burlington County.