Peter Harvey: We know what we need. Now we need to take action. | Opinion | #education | #technology | #training


We asked four attorney generals — Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and former attorney generals Chris Porrino, Peter Harvey and John Farmer, Jr. — their opinion on how police reform has progressed since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer a year ago.

By Peter C. Harvey

Many communities nationwide are correctly examining their policing practices in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, graphically captured on video and shown around the world. But, what does systemic and institutional police reform actually look like in the day-to-day operations of a police department?

Put differently, what action can a conscientious mayor, city council or police leader take that actually delivers fair, impartial and respectful police services to every community? There are several key areas that require serious examination, to make permanent improvements in police services, measures that will avoid rebellions similar to Watts in 1965, Newark in 1967, Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2016 and Minneapolis in 2020.

Philosophy. What is the vision of police services that a city seeks to deliver to all of its communities? Does it seek to have a police organization made up of “warriors” or “guardians?” Does it see the police as protecting one community from another, or affirming to members of a particular community their lesser status? Does the city wish to avoid paying millions in settlements or court judgments, and living through criminal trials of its officers? Deciding these fundamental questions informs every policing decision — from selecting police leadership to the methods police use to achieve public safety.

Hiring. Modern policing is a difficult job. It requires a diverse workforce that has the intelligence and patience to thoughtfully perform the many public safety tasks needed by the public. A high school diploma is not a sufficient educational or maturity level to be entrusted with police authority. More education generally means better conflict resolution skills and a lesser propensity to use deadly force as a first option. In my view, a two-year college degree should be the minimum educational threshold. Additionally, no one who has engaged in violence against women or children should be hired in law enforcement. Ever.

2. Policies. A comprehensive policy review is warranted to both update existing policies and write new ones of consequence. The key policies: use of force (including de-escalation), stops, searches and arrests. Because these activities expose the public to the loss of freedom or death, they must be carefully examined and updated to incorporate best policing practices.

Others are needed, too, specifically, bias-free policing, community engagement, First Amendment and LGBTQI. Most departments do not have these policies and this deficiency is reflected in how aggressively officers engage — and fail to engage — with certain communities.

Training. Doesn’t it logically follow that modern policies must be coupled with modern training? Police officers act consistently with their training. In fact, that argument usually is advanced to defend a civil action or criminal prosecution charging negligent or unconstitutional behavior. Training must teach anti-bias principles, de-escalation, correct use of force, and behavior the agency simply will not tolerate. Officers deserve as much. The public does, too.

Internal Affairs. Principled detectives will enforce the agency’s policies. They also will identify racist and sexist behavior of personnel on the street and in social media. Violations of police policies must be investigated and sanctioned, and all personnel must be required to report policy violations as well as intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force. An ineffective IA unit results in officers having no fear about violating the rules, resulting in officers who behave in broad daylight like Derek Chauvin.

Technology. Transparency of police practices requires high-quality data systems, including body cameras and car cameras. Both police leaders and the public need it, particularly civilian review entities. Thousands of paper records are antithetical to a supervisor’s ability to examine the quality of service being delivered to the public. Modern police organizations need a chief technology officer and good data systems. The data system is the “early warning system” that gives supervisors the ability to sit at a computer and review officers’ work: training, arrest reports, internal affairs complaints and both body camera and car camera footage that accompanied stops, arrests or searches. An obsolete data system conceals bad conduct and prevents self-critical analysis.

Necessary police reforms require leadership. In the absence of decisive leadership, consent decrees filed in federal court can change behavior and implement institutional reform of police practices.

New Jersey has an advantage and is positioning itself to be the nation’s leader on police reform. Our attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, is using his authority to require new statewide use of force and de-escalation standards and training, public disclosure of uses of force, and disclosure of major disciplinary action taken against officers by their departments.

Separately, the New Jersey Senate is considering broad police licensing legislation that will define the educational, background requirements and work history for one to obtain and renew a license to serve as a police officer. It should be enacted.

We have studied the matter long enough. The time has come for decisive action.

Peter C. Harvey was New Jersey Attorney General from 2016-2018. He is currently a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and an Independent Federal Monitor for the Newark Police Consent Decree.

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