New Jersey civil rights groups are pushing Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to sign a bill that would require the state attorney general to take over from local authorities any investigation of a death — including shootings — in which local police were involved.

The bill, which would mandate that an independent prosecutor conduct an investigation whenever a civilian dies during a police encounter or while in police custody, cleared the Senate in March and the Assembly in December. Advocates had pushed for the measure since a version was first introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) in 2016.

NJ State Senate President, Steve Sweeney at his West Deptford office in a file photo.<br/> Aug. 13, 2018 19 2018
AKIRA SUWA / For The Inquirer.
NJ State Senate President, Steve Sweeney at his West Deptford office in a file photo.
Aug. 13, 2018 19 2018

“Whenever this type of force is used and a life is taken, is it that much to ask for an independent review?” Sweeney said in an interview this week. “Give people the comfort level that an investigation has been done independently.”

Murphy has not indicated whether he will sign the measure and a spokesperson declined comment. Supporters, led by the advocacy group Faith in New Jersey, have called for the governor to enact the bill “with no amendments, changes or any other conditions.”

Gov. Murphy has not indicated whether he will sign the independent prosecutor bill.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gov. Murphy has not indicated whether he will sign the independent prosecutor bill.

“New Jersey has been waiting for this bill for a very long time,” said Archange Antoine, the group’s executive director. "It’s the time that the governor stands with the people who put him into office and do what’s right.”

Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie "pocket-vetoed” a similar bill before he left office last January. But civil rights leaders believe they have an ally in Murphy, who was elected in 2017 with support from the minority community. Sweeney believes the bill would help dispel a perception that county prosecutor’s offices, which usually investigate police shootings, have a racial bias in favor of local law enforcement officers.

In 2018, there were 12 police-involved fatal shootings in New Jersey, according to the Washington Post, which tracks shootings nationwide. They include the June shooting of LaShanda Anderson, of Philadelphia, who was killed at a Deptford strip mall by a Deptford police officer while trying to flee a shoplifting spree.

LaShanda Anderson, 36, was shot and killed by police after she attempted to strike officers with her car after shoplifting at a Marshalls store in Deptford, authorities said. Her family disputed the grand jury's finding that the use of force was justified.

A Gloucester County grand jury in November cleared Deptford Police Sgt. Kevin Clements of any wrongdoing and found that the use of deadly force was justified when he fired, striking Anderson in the left side of her head and elbow. She died at the scene. It was the first fatal police-involved shooting in Deptford.

A file photo of a Deptford Township police car.
MELANIE BURNEY
A file photo of a Deptford Township police car.

Civil rights attorney Stanley O. King, who represents Anderson’s family, said grand jury proceedings can be one-sided. County prosecutors often have close relationships with police departments, making it difficult to conduct a fair investigation, he said. Two eyewitnesses who described a different scenario about the shooting to the Inquirer and Daily News said neither was called before the grand jury.

“It is unfair to have a local prosecutor try to objectively investigate these kinds of deaths,” King said. “This bill is a great first step to avoid the appearance of any types of conflict.”

In the wake of other such high-profile police-involved shootings, there has been a growing debate about who should investigate when someone dies during an encounter with police or while in their custody. The bill, supporters say, would restore public confidence with investigators from outside the jurisdiction.

“It’s a real national issue,” said Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, (D., Essex), one of the bill’s sponsors. “I believe the bill is something that should be signed.”

In Pennsylvania, local police-involved shootings are usually investigated by the county District Attorney’s Office unless there is a conflict, in which case the state Attorney General’s Office takes over. The state had 23 fatal police shootings in 2018, according to the Post. In September, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced a homicide charge against a white police officer who shot a black man during a scuffle — the first time an officer was charged with a homicide in a shooting since 1999.

Nationwide, 986 people were shot and killed by police in 2018, according to the Post, which began compiling deadly police shootings after Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal has expressed concerns about the measure and there has been speculation that Murphy may conditionally veto the bill. Murphy has 45 days from when the bill hit his desk Dec. 17 to sign or veto the bill or it becomes law.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal speaks during a news conference in December at Camden Lutheran Housing in Camden, N.J., announcing a series of lawsuits against polluters in New Jersey TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal speaks during a news conference in December at Camden Lutheran Housing in Camden, N.J., announcing a series of lawsuits against polluters in New Jersey TIM TAI / Staff Photographer

During a hearing before the Assembly Appropriations Committee in December, Grewal testified against the bill, saying it would “undermine public trust in law enforcement and will replace a system that already does everything that the sponsors seek to accomplish and more.”

Grewal said he was concerned that the legislation, if it becomes law, would prevent local or county investigators from going to the scene and that could delay the probe and their ability to gather key evidence. The bill also would send a “troubling message” that county prosecutors cannot be trusted to fairly perform their jobs, he said.

Currently under a directive from the Attorney General’s Office, any deadly use of force by a municipal police officer is investigated by the county prosecutor and not the local police department, and then reviewed by the state. Unless the facts indicate the use of force was justified, the circumstances of the incident must be presented to a grand jury to determine whether charges are warranted.

Grewal said another directive that he issued last March requiring police departments to release dashboard or body camera footage of police shootings adds another layer of transparency and accountability. His office also can take over investigations and prosecutors.

The bill has strong opposition from law enforcement, including the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association and police unions. Charges are not often brought in police shootings and convictions are rare.

“Unless there is a good reason, these investigations ought to stay in the home county,” said Richard Buzby, president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police. "We believe that the county prosecutors are fully capable to conduct the investigation.”

But the bill’s supporters, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the state chapter of the NAACP, believe an independent prosecutor is needed to rebuild public confidence in the justice system in the minority community and put distance between investigators and law enforcement to avoid a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one.

“There’s no sense of fairness,” Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County Branch of the NAACP, said Thursday. “The officers should be held to a higher standard rather than given the benefit of the doubt.”

The bill also calls for grand jury hearings to be held outside the county where the death happened. King believes the autopsy should also be conducted by a medical examiner from outside the jurisdiction.

“It’s a good bill that restores confidence and trust,” Sweeney said in an interview Wednesday. “It gives a level of protection for everyone involved.”