A number of troubling recent incidents involving New Jersey police suggest that conflicts between law enforcement and the public are not limited to big cities — nor is the damage to the public trust.
A state trooper cavity-searched a man on the side of the road as cars whizzed by on busy Route 206 in Southampton, Burlington County. The act is in conflict with state policy — and basic decency — requiring cavity searches to be conducted in private and with dignity. The trooper said he was looking for marijuana, but he didn’t find any when he poked his hand in the man’s underwear. The incident last year is now the subject of a civil lawsuit.
An Atlantic City cop, repeatedly in hot water for alleged brutality, faces a federal civil suit, scheduled to be heard May 14, for beating a man with his baton and kneeing him in the ribs in 2012. Instead of condemning brutal behavior, the city is trying to cover up previous allegations of violence by the officer by keeping Internal Affairs files sealed. Just a month ago, a federal jury awarded $300,000 to a man who said three Atlantic City police punched and kicked him while a police dog bit him. The jury found that Atlantic City failed to train and monitor its police.
A Gloucester Township cop smacked a 13-year-old girl twice in the face after he handcuffed her March 8. Last week, the Camden County prosecutor charged him with simple assault.
Clearly, discipline seems to have fallen apart in these departments. That’s dangerous not only for the cops’ victims, but anyone else living in or traveling through the state.
It is part of a larger national conflict between police and communities that has exploded in violence in recent years. In many cases, race was at the center of a sickening number of incidents involving police violence and brutality. Just because that’s not necessarily the case in the New Jersey incidents doesn’t mean these don’t cause grave damage to the community — and to trust between civilians and law enforcement.
There are many ways to improve community-police relations, including community policing, where police cultivate good relationships with residents. The practice has reduced hostilities between cops and the community in Philadelphia and elsewhere. But Congress wants to cut funding to a program that pays community police officers’ salaries. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) is fighting that and every delegate from New Jersey and Pennsylvania should join him.
But even more should be done to address these problems with New Jersey police. The state’s leaders and its residents have an obligation to hold police departments accountable.
Gov. Murphy needs to investigate state police behavior as well as how the command structure broke down. Based on the results, he can’t hesitate to recommend discipline or retraining for those responsible. Otherwise, it looks like he’s tolerating the abuse, and allowing bad behavior to get worse.
The same goes for mayors in Atlantic City and Gloucester. They are the executives and they are responsible for setting the standards for police conduct. Public confidence in law enforcement as well as public safety are on the line.