Police reform: the New Jersey experience
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal on police reform (Full Stream 2/26)
John Farmer: &# 171; By their actions, the police determine the boundaries of our freedom&# 187;
How did the City of Camden manage to effectively reorganize the police force and reduce crime rates? John J. Farmer, Jr., Rutgers University, Rutgers University professor and former New Jersey attorney general believes the key to security is police trust.
Margot Gontard: What do you think of the slogan “Divest the Police of Funding”?
John Farmer: To understand the slogan “Divest Police Funding” requires understanding the source of police legitimacy in the United States. Unlike other states in which power comes either from the royal family or from the bureaucracy, in the United States, the source of legitimacy is the country’s citizens..
Over time, the way public order was maintained changed. In many places, the police have begun to resemble an occupying force rather than a force whose legitimacy is based on the consensus of the community that the police provide for. I think the police got the feeling that they are under siege – and they are being besieged by fellow citizens. Part of my job was trying to bring people and police back together. In this case, it is important to remind the police that America is governed with the consent of the governed. This basic element of communication has been absent for too long in many regions of the country..
The pandemic led to the introduction of quarantine measures, as a result of which people were locked in their homes for several months. The quarantines hit the poorest and racial minorities disproportionately hard. The video of the murder of a man in Minnesota was the spark that set everything on fire. But this has been going for a long time. The meaning of the current protest is a demand to revise the principles of ensuring public order.
M.G .: But for many it sounds like a call to disband the police …
D.F .: When you are dealing with a slogan, it probably means different things to different people. Proponents of disbanding the police will very quickly discover that they shouldn’t have done so. Police officers and non-police officers have a common interest: they want to be safe. People do not want to live in a dangerous area, be victims of criminals and objects of violence, and the police do not want to be responsible for order in such an area. Based on this shared interest in public safety, relationships should be built.
In the United States, the police do a very difficult job, as they are responsible for both public order and the protection of the personal rights of people. The legitimacy of the police depends on how successfully it is able to operate in such difficult circumstances. It turns out that we want police officers to be ideal citizens, because by their actions the police determine the boundaries of our freedom..
Much more police involvement in local communities is also needed. In the United States, there is the concept of “community policing”. In practice, it often looks like this: the police station assigns one police officer to be in charge of this area of work. But it doesn’t have to be that way: the entire police department is obliged to do this. In some cities in England, many police officers are unarmed. This is a very different style of work, in which police officers are immersed in the life of the community, people trust them and understand that everyone has a common interest in stopping crime and keeping the streets safe..
M.G .: The city of Camden, New Jersey has undergone a radical police reform. You can tell more about this.?
D.F .: Five or six years ago, Camden was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Almost as many killings were committed in it as in Iraqi Mosul during the war. The residents of the city did not trust the police so much that they did not rely on them at all and did not even call when something happened. After the reorganization, it became possible to make better use of police resources. This made it possible, for example, to rotate police officers so that different people work in the most difficult areas: a constant stay in a difficult area often leads to a loss of police composure and the emergence of dangerous situations. The rules for the use of force, especially lethal force, have been revised. This became possible only as a last resort, when the lives of police officers or city residents are at risk. The police have done an excellent job of re-establishing contact with the residents of the city by building partnerships. As a result, the number of homicides has dropped dramatically and there is much more confidence in the safety of the streets of Camden..
The success was the result of a number of factors, the main of which was the common interest of city leaders, police and residents. They just decided they had enough violence and murder.
M.G .: Can this experience be used in other US cities?
D.F .: In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all method. The situation is unique in each city: somewhere you may have too many police stations, in other places there may not be enough. General legitimacy must remain, stemming from the desire of the people to live in safety and the desire of the police not to unnecessarily risk their lives..
M.G .: Is it necessary to involve other specialists in the work of the police, for example, social workers?
D.F .: Again, this depends on the specific circumstances. Perhaps in some cities where the police have too many tasks with which they cannot cope, these responsibilities should be assigned to someone else. In the capital of Belgium, Brussels, there are crime prevention officers. They are not police officers, rather social workers. Their task is to identify people with problems (usually teenagers) and intervene before they start committing crimes. You can’t just say that tasks X, Y and Z just need to be taken from the police without knowing the local context..
M.G .: Have there been any cases in your practice when the police tried to set up?
D.F .: No, I don’t remember such cases when I was the Attorney General. Then the main problem I faced was racial profiling. New Jersey police officers have been accused of selectively stopping and searching people based on racial bias. We were the first jurisdiction in a country to acknowledge this problem. This forced us to resort to serious reforms. We installed video cameras in police cars in order to have an idea of what is really happening: when two people are involved in an incident, each may have a completely different interpretation of what happened, and human memory is extremely unreliable.
We also began to record such detentions and searches in the system. Our goal was to restore people’s trust by demonstrating that we are trying to figure out what is really going on. We organized regular communication between the police leadership and black clergy to exchange views and gradually reduce the level of tension. This is how we were able to restore trust in the police..
These meetings are still taking place now, 20 years later. And then there was a real crisis, I spoke to people every day, because I was afraid of outbreaks of violence and wanted to avoid it. Now such meetings are not considered to be something extraordinary, but are an integral part of the work. They need to be carried out throughout the country..
M.G .: What was the reaction of police officers to the requirement to install video cameras in their cars?
D.F .: This decision was then controversial. The police were not happy. But, in my opinion, in many cases, such videos confirm the version of the policeman. The very fact of the video recording also affects the behavior of both the policeman and the citizens. They know that a video of the meeting will be recorded, which encourages more polite behavior on both sides. I think this stimulated the proper performance of professional duties by the police and convinced people that the perpetrators will be held accountable if necessary..