FLEMINGTON, NJ - Three of northwestern New Jersey’s chief county-level law enforcement officers spoke at length about scenario-specific trainings, police guidance and other issues documented in the national debate on law enforcement practices following the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

The first “Use-of-Force” virtual town hall meeting for Hunterdon, Warren and Somerset counties was held July 28, and promoted “Mutual Respect for One Another.”

Information provided and commented on will be presented to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, who has been looking at reviews and the potential necessity for reforms of law enforcement procedures.

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Grewal and county officials statewide continue participating in discussions on the professionalism and trainings police officers in the state receive. Processes and outlines for law enforcement interacting in situations with suspects or people being detained for questioning were presented during the evening, with areas to scrutinize highlighted.

Accountability is a renewed focus for law enforcement leadership and agencies statewide, “to make sure that the process is working properly,” Warren County Prosecutor James L. Pfeiffer said.

He added that New Jersey is and will continue to be the leader in the United States in terms of ensuring that training of police officers is the very best it can be and will be even better upon upcoming conference and data review formats and discussions with the Attorney General’s office.

Acting Hunterdon County Prosecutor Michael Williams was a key speaker and participant in the event, along with his counterparts in Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson, Pfeiffer and Acting Hunterdon County Chief of Detectives Frank R. Crisologo.

Williams was asked a question on organizational hierarchy to law enforcement, as the NJ Attorney General has statewide jurisdiction and he oversees each county prosecutor’s office. In turn, the county prosecutors office has oversight and responsibilities over all police departments and local law enforcement within the county.

“It’s set out in statute and in case law, and this was established by the Supreme Court in 1953, which states the county prosecutor is the chief law enforcement officer for the entire county,” he said. “The authority of the county prosecutor over the local police chiefs and police departments was also set forth with that opinion. In 1970, the Criminal Justice Act further broadened the powers of the county prosecutor and reinforced our roles as the dominant law enforcement officer in the county and the prosecutor has oversight responsibilities over the police departments.”

When asked what will prevent the use of force by a “bad apple” officer because they would be able to state a legal defense of perceiving a threat to their life, Williams replied that, in the eyes of the law, the subjective mindset or thoughts an officer could explain would not matter, the issue is firm and procedural.

“The test for whether or not the use of force is proper or not is if it is objectively reasonable and necessary to use that level of force,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what an officer subjectively believed. The objective reasonable basis of the amount of force used and the circumstances in which it was used will be determining factors.”

Another question was asked on the implementation of body cameras for officers adding accountability to any situations where use of force could occur, and the officials in the virtual forum said this is likely to become mandatory equipment.

Pfeiffer said public trust and respect for the practices of law enforcement, through transparency and continued reviews, is another main goal that was set forth by county and state officials.

He then introduced Director of the Somerset County Police Academy Richard Celeste, Ed.D, retired deputy chief of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, who instructs police recruits from Hunterdon, Warren and Somerset counties on use of force principles. His goal for the forum was to present the use of force categories, procedures and materials to the public and allow for participants to generate their own questions and ideas.

A question for Pfeiffer that came forward concerned what is being done to improve or develop law enforcement relations with the minority communities. He said that, in Warren County, a group is assembling to meet on a regular basis to review police response and perceptions among minorities, and “to discuss concerns, issues and ideas openly, as a whole.”

In addition he said Warren’s police departments are reaching out to minorities living in the communities the officers serve and protect. The goal of departments performing outreach would be for creating greater trust and respect, and establishing meaningful working relationships within communities.
 
“In addition Warren County is looking at ways to further recruit individuals from minority communities and have more officers of color in Warren County, to better reflect and mirror the diversity of the county with our law enforcement,” Pfeiffer said.

Celeste’s extensive presentation examined specific findings in case law. He explained that, in an arrest situation, if a police officer is going to use force, the use needs to be “objectively reasonable and necessary.”

Celeste said it is noteworthy that for New Jersey case law, the use of force really revolves around two specific instances, including one in April 1985 with rules formalized for the use of deadly force against a claimed felon.

When reviewing a picture of Floyd’s last moments alive with the Minneapolis officer kneeling on his neck, Celeste noted that any officer’s use of their hands against a person’s neck would qualify as deadly force, and he said, “we have always taught that (police) do not use their body weight on somebody’s neck. That last picture of Floyd is deadly force.”

Physical force, he said, as defined under the use of force policy, is contact by officers that goes beyond the routine and procedural nature of apprehensions, arrests or diffusing confrontations.

Mechanical force, he said, is defined as using a device or substance to apprehend an individual or stop violence. This includes the use of pepper spray or other devices, as well as canine physical contact if a police dog is used on a suspect.

The presence of the police dog is considered constructive authority, but if it attacks, bites or makes contact with an individual, that use of the police dog falls under mechanical force.

“Many times, the question is asked of officers, by their sergeants, supervisors and chiefs, if there is the process of litigation or a case comes forward, why did you use physical or mechanical force against the individual?” Celeste said.

“It is exactly the same for physical and mechanical force, as you can use them to, ’O’ for overcoming resistance, ‘P’ to protect property and ‘P’ to protect persons and lastly ‘A’ to affect other lawful objectives, such as to make an arrest,” he said. “This acronym allows officers to respond and articulate with standards that they’re taught.”

He said because the use of force can apply to when officers are confronting individuals not under arrest, the “Other Lawful Objectives” is applicable to Emotionally Disturbed Persons (EDPs) who need to be contained.

“That would be when there is no intention of arresting the individual, but some contact is required as we want to assist and help the individual because they may be in crisis, and that designation also involves when the individual may need to get to the hospital for more help to be rendered,” he said. “That is also ‘lawful’ under policies, and we’re talking about people who don't want to be, but must be escorted by police, because they’re in crisis.”

The need for officers to intervene when one of their fellow officers implements use of force was discussed, as Celeste presented the images from the 75-year-old protestor in Buffalo, New York, being shoved to the concrete by police and then bleeding from his head and ears, an act which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo condemned.

“If these officers saw that an officer was going to push down the person, then maybe they could have stepped in there and interrupted the flow of events and this incident would not have happened,” he said. “In police training, we talk for a significant amount of time about interrupting the flow of events. Officers can interrupt and break that chain of emotion, and that is what you’d want to do so bad things don’t happen.”

According to Celeste, the state policy lets police officers know, “we (law enforcement) will support you unless you are inconsistent with the State of New Jersey Attorney General’s, or your county prosecutor’s, policy.”

One of the topics the Forum detailed was the Internal Affairs process for police departments, municipal/county and law enforcement agency leaders, as Crisologo spoke about categorization.

“The Attorney General’s Directive 2019-05 is a new Internal Affairs (IA) Policy that begins in August 2020,” he said. “Due to COVID-19, it was pushed back for implementation in April to August. It is going to make it easier for the public to file a complaint and achieve faster resolution of complaints. It requires New Jersey’s county prosecutors to exercise greater oversight of Internal Affairs functions within police departments, and it requires the hiring of law enforcement agencies to obtain Internal Affairs files of any past law enforcement employers so they can prevent ‘problem’ officers from jumping from one department to another.”

“Additionally, any complaint from any party and at any time, whether made via phone call, email, in-person or with a letter, made in any way, is to be accepted,” he added. "The idea of Internal Affairs investigations is monitoring of officers’ conduct in cases where their conduct is not up to expectations. The hope would be to bring them back into compliance so they’re able to continue to serve in law enforcement.”

Every complaint received will have many levels of checks and balances and reviews to go through before proper determinations are made. The categories for IA investigations will fall into Criminal, Administrative Misconduct and Performance-based investigations.

Criminal cases will always be taken over by the county prosecutor’s office so they are vetted for criminal violations before going back to IA in police departments. Cases classified as administrative misconduct could also be taken by a county prosecutor’s office, though they may be given back to a local department.

Performance-based investigations are handled by departments, but Crisologo said there is continued oversight by a prosecutor’s office.

“The overwhelming majority of police officers I have come into contact with in my 35 years of experience are good, hardworking well-intentioned officers who are just looking to keep their communities safe and be upstanding officers,” Crisologo noted.