The Nation’s Most Ambitious Police Reform Launches Today

Cynics say that this summer’s racial-justice protests changed little. New Jersey wants to prove them wrong.

Wiki /The Atlantic

The nation’s most ambitious police reform starts today.

Few states made concrete and comprehensive changes in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—in part because the politics of doing so are usually difficult. But Gurbir Grewal, the 47-year-old Democrat who was appointed New Jersey’s attorney general in 2017, doesn’t have to worry about persuading recalcitrant legislators or winning reelection. Grewal has more individual power over his state’s police forces than almost any other official in America, and this afternoon, he will deploy that power to unilaterally overhaul New Jersey’s use-of-force policies and retrain every police officer in the nation’s most densely populated state.

“We’re starting with the premise that in every interaction, we’re going to respect the person we’re interacting with, the sanctity of their life, their dignity,” Grewal told me in a phone interview, “because if you take away somebody’s dignity, in some cases that’s all they have.”

Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in a killing captured on video by a bystander. Two days earlier, 1,200 miles to the east, a Black man in New Jersey, Maurice Gordon, also died at the hands of a white law-enforcement officer. Grewal immediately launched an investigation into the incident, in which a state trooper fatally shot Gordon during a traffic stop. Grewal later released dashcam footage of the incident, which showed a hand-to-hand struggle between Gordon and the officer in the moments before his death.

Appointed by the governor, Grewal doesn’t have to face voters, and state law grants him authority over all 38,000 law-enforcement officers across more than 500 state, county, and local agencies—a larger combined workforce than the FBI or any police department outside of New York City. The changes that Grewal is announcing today are the first major revisions to New Jersey’s use-of-force policy in more than 20 years. The new policy requires officers to use the least amount of force necessary, and only as a last resort; mandates that officers give clear warnings and an opportunity to respond before using force; and expands the definition of deadly force as an “absolute last resort” that encompasses sitting or kneeling on a person’s body or striking them in the head or neck. Officers are also banned from firing on vehicles in most circumstances, and the policy adds more limits on when the police can chase a suspect by car. The policy includes a requirement that officers intervene when another officer is using excessive force. Officers who violate the new policy could face consequences including counseling, retraining, termination, and criminal prosecution, the attorney general’s office said.

To help enforce the new policy, Grewal is also unveiling a first-in-the-nation reporting portal through which agencies across the state must document all uses of force by their officers or risk investigation by county prosecutors or the attorney general’s office. A public version of the portal will debut next year.

Collectively, the changes will put New Jersey at the national forefront of police reform, joining Colorado, which in June passed legislation to revise its use-of-force policy, ban choke holds, and expand the use of body cameras. Colorado acted in the middle of the protests over Floyd’s death and amid renewed scrutiny over the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Aurora, while in police custody nearly a year earlier.

Grewal has, like many Democratic state attorneys general in recent years, made aggressive use of his authority to position New Jersey as a progressive bulwark against the Trump administration. In 2018, he issued a directive strictly limiting how much cooperation state and local law-enforcement agencies could give to federal immigration agents. Over the summer, a group of 17 Democratic attorneys general, including Grewal, wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to grant state attorneys general more power to investigate constitutional violations by local police departments.

Yet Grewal’s broad individual authority has allowed him to go further on police reform than most of his colleagues, who are constrained either by statutes or electoral politics. New Jersey is one of just seven states whose attorney general is not elected. “I got that extraordinary luxury of not worrying about a policy’s polling and about, you know, how this is going to sound at a fundraiser that I have that evening,” Grewal told me. “I just have the luxury of being able to do the right things every day for the right reasons, and we’re doing that. And so that’s the goal, man.” (Although Grewal boasts about his freedom to ignore political considerations, others have mentioned him as a possible replacement for Senator Cory Booker if the New Jersey Democrat joins the Biden administration.)

Grewal is the first and only Sikh American state attorney general in the country, and he has spoken about his personal experience with racial profiling in the years after 9/11. “I remember getting randomly selected, until I became AG, at every airport I went to,” he told me. “So I understand those microaggressions and what it feels like to be on the other side of someone who should be in a position of authority and is not following the rules.”

“I think,” he added, “it’s given me a degree of empathy.”

Grewal has won praise from groups often at odds with law enforcement, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is a lot of good coming out of this office,” Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, told me. The group had criticized Grewal’s opposition earlier this year to a proposal that would give more power to a civilian-complaint review board in Newark. Sinha said the new use-of-force policy was “a step in the right direction” that placed New Jersey “among the best in the nation” in the movement for police reform. But the ACLU would have gone even further to ban the use of police attack dogs altogether—the new policy merely limits their use for now—and restrict the use of Tasers.

The shift in tone the changes represent, Sinha told me, is as important as their substance, if not more. “This policy is an acknowledgment that we’re living in different times,” he said. “It’s essentially saying, ‘We expect better of our police departments than merely what the law allows.’”

Grewal’s challenge will be to get New Jersey’s many police forces to buy in to de-escalation. Across the country, law-enforcement groups have warned that dramatic changes to the way the police interact with suspects will cause officers to hesitate and put their lives at risk in dangerous situations. “Policy alone doesn’t change anything,” Grewal told me, recalling how often an advocate or adviser reminded him in recent months: “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”

His record on winning support from law enforcement is mixed. Police unions sued Grewal after he issued a directive in June to require agencies to publish the names of officers who had been disciplined. The policy is still in the courts. Grewal announced that change in the midst of the Floyd protests, saying he felt he needed to act “immediately” and acknowledging that the process was “abbreviated.” The effort to rewrite the state’s use-of-force policy, by contrast, began long before Floyd’s death, and included public forums and extensive consultations with both civil-rights groups and law-enforcement agencies. Grewal pointed to the statewide training initiative—which his office believes is the first of its kind in the United States—as key to winning support from law enforcement. “The engagement has been robust and has been positive,” he said. “Everybody has been at the table and has been heard at the table, and, I think, understands the importance of this policy.” In a show of support, leaders of law-enforcement unions in New Jersey are joining Grewal this morning at a virtual press conference to announce the policy.

Retraining 38,000 officers costs money, of course, and that investment in itself puts Grewal somewhat at odds with the movement on the left to defund, or divest from, the police and redirect funding toward other government services, such as health care. That divide could grow in 2021. Advocates for police reform are making renewed efforts in city halls and state capitols, debating whether to push for proposals that would invest more money for officer training or to slash police budgets instead.

When I asked Grewal if his overhaul of policing in New Jersey, as well-intentioned as it might be, merely reaffirmed the centrality of law enforcement in the lives of its people, he acknowledged that the police’s responsibilities in society had crept far beyond the narrow mandate of public safety. It has crept into schools, drug treatment, and mental-health interventions, among many other areas. But Grewal was unapologetic.

“I need to fund these types of initiatives, and the reason I need to fund them is all those other systems have failed,” he told me. “We realize that we are far beyond our original lane in law enforcement, but we’re there because unless we do it, no one else is.”