We asked four Attorneys General – Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and former attorneys general Chris Porrino, Peter Harvey and John Farmer, Jr. – their take on how police reform has progressed since George Floyd was assassinated by a Minneapolis cop a year ago.
By John Farmer, Jr.
A year after George Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and widespread advocacy for police reform, the country is fighting over how to accomplish police reform amid criminality increasingly violent and eroding public safety. According to The Washington Post, “With shootings plaguing cities across the country during the pandemic, there are growing signs that the thirst for change is being dulled by fear of rampant crime.”
By the end of the year, Chicago had seen more than 750 murders, a 50% increase in 2019 in a city already plagued by violence. Homicides have increased by 30% in Los Angeles, by 40% in New York. Homicides in America increased by 20% in 2020, which means, according to The New York Times, that “the United States has passed 20,000 murders for the first time since 1995.”
It’s too early to tell whether the violent crime spike was a product of the COVID-19 isolation greenhouse environment or a more enduring feature of American life. But far from dampening reform efforts, this disturbing erosion of public safety underscores, in my view, the pre-existing need to transform the culture of police-community relations in much of the country. At the very least, the surge in violent crime should provide the common ground needed to move reforms forward, as communities and police share a common interest in measures that will reduce violence and provide safer neighborhoods.
In my two decades of working to build communities of trust in cities like Miami, Chicago, Denver, Boston and even Brussels, Belgium, the realization of this common interest in public safety has been the common thread of the efforts of successful reform; its absence – where the police see no need for change, or where the community decides they can no longer work with the police, as in Chicago – will doom any reform effort and the cycle of violence will escalate.
The truth is that the police can no longer – if ever they really could – function effectively to promote public safety without (1) the involvement of other government resources, such as educators, mental health experts and providers. shelters and food, (2) engaging influential community organizations such as places of worship and charities, and (3) direct cultivation through education and training of people of all ages and all horizons in the community. There are simply too many potentially troubled or injured individuals, too many firearms and other weapons in circulation, and too many possibilities for massive damage for the police to function effectively without assistance. And that help won’t come until trust is built, rebuilt, or rebuilt from the ground up, depending on the history of policing in a particular municipality, city, or state.
In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Thoughtful reform requires a careful assessment of a jurisdiction’s history, the strengths and vulnerabilities of its community and its policing culture, as well as an understanding and willingness to adapt the best practices of others to local circumstances. jurisdictions.
In looking for ways to transform this relationship, furthermore, the nation would do well to look to New Jersey. For more than two decades, under the leadership of a succession of attorneys general, county attorneys and police executives, New Jersey has enacted a series of reforms designed to promote transparency in police management, increase reliability of prosecutions and build community support and confidence.
From the requirement for cameras in police cars and on police officers to reforming eyewitness identification procedures to video recording of confessions and compilation and reporting of data on issues such as Using force, New Jersey has taken as many steps (if not more) to build community confidence in the law as any other state. These efforts gained momentum under the current Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who revised the state’s use of force policy, pledged greater transparency in the disclosure of the results of internal affairs investigations and mandated the creation of an early warning system to assess officers’ conduct and training in escalating conflicts, among other measures.
Of course, there is always room for improvement. The direct involvement of community members and organizations in police training has borne fruit in building trust in other jurisdictions. Given the widespread ignorance of basic constitutional principles among young Americans reflected in recent surveys, further, and the targeting of police for recruitment by extremist groups, training should extend beyond its focus. tradition on police procedures such as search and seizure structure and the theory of limited government and the government by consent it embodies. Police culture, and policing itself, should be taught as an extension of these principles.
But while reform efforts in other parts of the country stagnate in the face of increased violence, the New Jersey example teaches that reform can be accomplished in the most challenging environments if the commitment to improving public safety is made. shared by civilian and police leaders. and by the public they serve. Reforms calibrated to meet local needs and circumstances are the best way to ensure that the increased violence seen in 2020 does not become a permanent feature of American life.
John Farmer, Jr. was Attorney General of New Jersey from 1999-2006. He is currently Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Here is how to submit an editorial or letter to the editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at Opinion NJ.com. Get the latest news straight to your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com newsletters.