A 2007 state law inadvertently protects police officers in New Jersey from accountability for misconduct, Andrew Ford reported for ProPublica and the Asbury Park Press in September 2020.
Between 2013 through 2017, New Jersey prosecutors charged law enforcement officers with official misconduct at least 118 times. As Ford wrote, these charges “were not based on minor complaints of tardiness or failing to maintain one’s uniform.” Instead officers were accused of serious acts of violence, including attempted murder, sexual misconduct, pistol-whipping, drug smuggling, intimidation and alleged bribery. Less than one-third of the charged officers received jail time.
Passed in 2007, New Jersey’s mandatory minimum sentencing law required mandatory jail time for public officials—including law enforcement officials—found guilty of having abused their authority. However, as Ford reported, the law “hasn’t worked as intended.” Instead, officials have often arranged pre-trial deals to avoid jail time, probation, or any criminal record of their misconduct. Although the 2007 sentencing law was intended to make plea deals the exception for official misconduct crimes, “they have become the norm,” Ford reported.
The tendency to go easy on officers who abuse their power is “a problem,” Thomas Shea, a former Long Branch police assistant patrol commander who now works as program director at the Seton Hall University Police Graduate Studies Program, told ProPublica. “And it’s a problem widely agreed upon within law enforcement.”
New Jersey is one of few states where officers are not licensed, Ford reported. Therefore, “short of a criminal conviction,” the state has little ability to remove officers charged with misconduct or to prevent them from moving to another department.
Even as public protests against police brutality, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, reached New Jersey, leading to increased calls for police accountability, state senators moved anonymously to amend a criminal justice reform bill focused on sentencing disparities to do away with the mandatory minimum jail sentences for official misconduct. “Frankly I missed the amended version of the bill,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan, a former county sheriff.
Andrew Ford, “How Criminal Cops Often Avoid Jail” ProPublica and Asbury Park Press, September 23, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/new-jersey-law-says-criminal-cops-should-go-to-jail-records-reveal-they-often-dont.
Matt Friedman, “Lawmakers Quietly Seek to Drop Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Official Misconduct,” Politico, September 16, 2020, https://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2020/09/16/lawmakers-quietly-seek-to-drop-mandatory-minimum-sentences-for-official-misconduct-1316935.
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