County Prosecutor answers questions about police use of force

County Prosecutor answers questions about police use of force

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Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri

Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri met with the Hopewell Township Committee on Tuesday, June 30 to present an overview of use of force and police reforms being implemented by NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. Onofri also took questions from the Committee and residents after his presentation. Also in attendance were NJ Assembly-member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Pennington Borough Mayor Joe Lawver, Richard Burke from the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability and nearly 90 members of the public. The meeting was recorded and is posted to the Township’s website

“8 mins 46 seconds occurred — and have changed the world as we know it,” said Onofri, about the murder of George Floyd, emphasizing the choice of the word “murder.” “Cries ‘I can’t breathe’ have reverberated throughout the world.”

Onofri began the presentation by emphasizing the importance of strengthened relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, explaining that the State has ongoing forums on this theme as part of the AG’s overall concept of “connect with the community.” 

As part of the major reforms, use of force guidelines are being revised in New Jersey for the first time in 20 years, with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) participating in assessing the policies, according to Onofri. 

The AG’s office will also soon make more real-time data available regarding use of force through an online portal. (Click here for Use of Force Portal Guide) 

Further, expanded crisis intervention training has been implemented and found to be one of the most effective ways to reduce use of force, explained Onofri.

In the case of a potential civil rights incident, the AG is creating an incident response team “Similar to those set by President Obama,” said Onofri. “It has been found to be successful and the team will respond to the community in the event of a civil rights incident. It will be comprised of individuals who are specifically trained in community relations and will help strengthen bonds between community and law enforcements.”

Another major upcoming change for the policing profession is requiring licensing rather than certification. “Barbers have to be licensed, lawyers, doctors… and the penalty, if you have a license and are found guilty of misconduct, is that your license is revoked and you can no longer work in that field again,” said Onofri, who gave examples of potential areas of misconduct that might result in a terminated license: “use of excessive force (parameters are being set), lying on a police report, and biased policing.”

Members of the public then posed questions to Onofri and the panel.

Are chokeholds allowed in New Jersey? Chokeholds or restraints are not allowed unless deadly force is necessary, said Onofri. “If an officer is disarmed and if the officer is authorized to fire a gun then the officer would be permitted to use the chokehold.” This standard has recently been made into law by a bill sponsored by Assembly-member Reynolds-Jackson that “clarifies that a law enforcement officer who knowingly chokes another person engages in use of deadly force.” (See Assembly, No. 4263)

“If a new AG wants to reinstate those, it cannot be because the legislature is making sure of it,” said Onofri, thanking Reynolds-Jackson. Onofri also explained that chokeholds are not taught in any police academies.

Are body cams required to be on? “Yes, but ‘when’ is dependent on the police department,” said Onofri. “When you are in an encounter with a civilian, it should be on.”

The panel fielded many questions regarding a waning trust in police. 

“The public shouldn’t hesitate to come forward if they feel they were mistreated by police because the truth comes forward,” said Onofri. 

In practical terms, “an individual who feels uncomfortable or intimidated by an interaction with a police officer is encouraged to report the incident,” Onofori said, adding that “internal affairs officers really operate independently” and are specially trained professionals. Additionally, the public can contact the county prosecutor’s office where the incident occurred and make a report directly to that internal affairs officer. As another point of contact, one could contact the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.

Onofri spoke about the importance of training officers to understand that “pulling someone over is a stressful situation and the officer has to help deal with that stress.” 

One member of the public asked: “It’s [racism is] called systemic for a reason — because it goes across the board and goes unchecked – how can we address issues that are pervasive across an entire department?”

“It’s a difficult question. It takes time to undo that,” admitted Onofri, who emphasized the necessity of relying on newer officers who are “less institutionalized and are aware of the biases…The police forces need to reflect the community — it is something i fully believe… we’re having this conversation with Chief Maloney as well as Mayor McLaughlin… I think this is something Hopewell will do in the very near future — to diversity the police force — and kids need role models.”

After several hours of thoughtful questioning and answers, the Committee thanked the rest of the panel and the public for their participation. Reynolds-Jackson also thanked the public for having the courage to have this conversation, “When we legislate we don’t do it out of a magic ball, we do it from knowing the community,” she said.

Have your voice heard: https://nj.gov/oag/force/ Public Input on Police Use of Force

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