FLEMINGTON, NJ - A timely presentation to the Freeholder Board at its June 16 meeting by Acting Hunterdon County Prosecutor Michael Williams touched on fairness in criminal justice protocols and policing without bias.
Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren said Williams would speak about the backdrop of nationwide movements and rallying around race relations, equality and law enforcement accountability.
Van Doren said he wanted to be very clear that “racism is wrong.” He reiterated points from the June 2 meeting that the freeholder board is united in viewing George Floyd’s death “as both a tragedy and a travesty,” which has ignited nationwide protests for social justice and demands for change.
“Hunterdon County’s freeholders and government deplore and condemn racism in all forms, and discrimination of any kind is not tolerated within the ranks of county employment nor within county interactions,” he said. “Our position is not newly-arrived at. A county policy establishing the provision of equal opportunity for employment and advancement free from any bias based on race, color, creed, sex, age or national origin was adopted by the freeholders all the way back in 1976, and this has been updated and amended regularly for the addition of other protected groups as the law has expanded.”
Peaceful protests in hubs around Hunterdon in recent weeks “in support of social justice issues” with sizable crowds drawn to Flemington, Clinton, Lambertville and Frenchtown were noted to be all peaceful and free from acts of violence that have caused chaos in other areas of the country.
According to Prosecutor Williams, in over 10 protest events that have taken place in Hunterdon since May 31, a total of 4,200 people have participated.
“That is an average of 420 people per protest, and I am really happy to report that every single one was a peaceful protest, resulting in no arrests and no criminal charges filed against any individuals at all,” he said. “That is a direct credit to not only the protesters and planners, but also to the extensive training, planning and the conduct of our county’s law enforcement community as the law enforcement in Hunterdon County is second to none.”
He explained that commitments to a “fair, just and bias-free criminal justice system” pervades law enforcement, police staff and the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.
“I know for a fact that our law enforcement officers back up these words with actions every single day,” he said. “On May 31, the County Prosecutors’ Association of New Jersey published a statement (online), and every county prosecutor in the state, all 21 of us, express our continued commitment as the chief law enforcement officers in our counties, to equal justice under the law.”
To further reference the civility and proper policing in action in Hunterdon County to date, Williams cited the report covered by TAPInto Flemington-Raritan on June 13 that Hunterdon County was named the safest among the 2,600 counties examined in the United States to raise a child by international nonprofit Save the Children.
“This is a true testament and a credit to our public service here in Hunterdon County and in particular to our outstanding law enforcement community,” he said.
Williams commented on the transitions of tragedy with the onset of the death toll and mass infections of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, then the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day 2020, “which led to arrests of several police officers.”
“These tragedies, as horrific as they are, do create a chance for change and reform and in particular with the Minnesota incident we started a nationwide dialogue on social justice and racial equality,” he said. “That is a positive thing, and it seems to be headed in the right direction. The death of George Floyd also re-raises the issue of law enforcement accountability.”
All New Jersey counties and county prosecutor’s offices will be working to revise their Use of Force Policies later this year. Williams said, at present, Hunterdon County residents can rest assured knowing the law enforcement agencies in the county are addressing the Use of Force on track with State of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal’s outline for revising New Jersey's Use of Force Policy in the months ahead.
Going forward, every county Use of Force Policy in New Jersey will be fostering greater public input as the counties change their policies. Each county, including Hunterdon, will be widely publicizing community outreach events “to help build a better
Statewide Use of Force Policy,” Williams said. Citizens will be invited to provide their input to the policy and state what they think should be done.
“From the information the county prosecutors gain from all 21 community outreach events, we are going to collaborate with the Office of the Attorney General and create a uniform Use of Force Policy, and that will apply throughout the state and within the county,” Williams said.
Van Doren said the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office has been at the forefront of advocating law enforcement outreach to and involvement with the community for many years, “in an effort to ensure that there is respect and understanding for all concerns.”
“Prosecutor Williams has continued that fine work and we greatly respect his efforts,” he said.
Williams was once a prosecutor in the Division of Criminal Justice of the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office. At that time, he was involved in the Use of Force review process at that level.
He said the state process was last revised at the turn of the century.
“It was at that time state-of-the-art, but that will soon be improved upon from State Attorney General Grewal’s Office in changing that policy,” he said. “As those are revised, I predict that by late summer and definitely by the end of the year, there should be new Use of Force guidelines for all law enforcement officers in the state. The current Hunterdon County Use of Force Policy already requires a comprehensive and impartial investigation of all use of force matters. This is a multi-layered, independent and uniform review process that produces transparent factual findings, and weeds out any potential conflicts of interest.”
The Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office reviews every Use of Force Report from local police departments and municipalities throughout the county.
“We review them ourselves and, because of this, Hunterdon County is far ahead of the curve in terms of internal investigations, documentation and tracking of these incident, plus adopting an early warning system that analyzes police officers’ conduct that may affecting them and their jobs, that is a very important piece to the puzzle here,” Williams said.
Following Williams’ comments, Freeholder John Lanza said the report goes beyond words. The actions of the county office back up every sentiment expressed, he said.
“We have continued to have great leadership in the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, and I think that remains a factor in how the protests have gone on with everything remaining peaceful,” he said. “We have great law enforcement leadership and our Acting Prosecutor Mike Williams does more than just speak the words, he does things. We are very lucky to have him and there is a reason why Attorney General Gurbir Singh Grewal thinks so highly of him and he had Mike here when County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, III, stepped down in early 2019. I have no doubt that the County Prosecutor’s Office will continue to conduct itself professionally, without any prejudice or bias whatsoever, especially because Mike Williams is at the helm.”