N.J. Bill Would Require Outside Prosecutors To Investigate Deaths Involving Police New Jersey officials want to require the state attorney general to investigate all deaths at the hands of police. But the state's top law enforcement official says that will erode public trust.
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N.J. Bill Would Require Outside Prosecutors To Investigate Deaths Involving Police

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N.J. Bill Would Require Outside Prosecutors To Investigate Deaths Involving Police

N.J. Bill Would Require Outside Prosecutors To Investigate Deaths Involving Police

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Local prosecutors often work closely with the police to fight crime. So when an officer kills someone, the question arises, can those prosecutors be trusted to investigate the police?

New Jersey is grappling with that question. A bill before the governor would require outside prosecutors to investigate deaths that involve law enforcement officers. Joe Hernandez of member station WHYY reports on the controversy over the measure. And a note to our listeners - this story includes the sound of gunshots.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: In the early morning hours of New Year's Eve 2014, Sheila Reid was woken up by her son. He told her that another one of her sons, Jerome, had been shot and killed.

SHEILA REID: I thought he was just B.S.ing and Jerome would be standing outside or something. But he said, no, he's really gone. He said the police shot him.

HERNANDEZ: Jerome Reid had been the passenger in a car that was pulled over for running a stop sign in Bridgeton, N.J. Police found a gun in the car and shot Reid as he tried to get out with his hands up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME REID: I'm going to get out of the car.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: No, you're not. Don't [expletive] move. Got you [expletive].

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

HERNANDEZ: The Cumberland County prosecutor personally knew the officer who shot Reid, so she recused herself from the case. Later, a New Jersey grand jury decided not to charge the two police officers involved. Sheila Reid was furious.

S REID: Not only the grand jury did me and my family wrong. They did everybody wrong because when - once one police officer get away with murder, they all do.

HERNANDEZ: That's why Reid and other criminal justice advocates are hoping a bill passed by the New Jersey legislature becomes law. It would force the state attorney general to investigate any death that's caused by police or happens in the custody of law enforcement, like inside a jail. Those investigations would no longer be conducted by county prosecutors, who some say are too cozy with local cops.

Yet the man who would be taking over these investigations in New Jersey, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, says the legislation is a bad idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GURBIR GREWAL: This bill may, in the end, undermine public trust in law enforcement.

HERNANDEZ: Grewal generally supports policies to increase police accountability. This year, he issued a directive requiring police officers to be drug tested and said police body and dash camera video would be released more quickly after deadly incidents.

But Grewal says county prosecutors are already required to check if they have a conflict of interest before they investigate police. And he says forcing local prosecutors off cases and sending in state officials will slow down investigations and anger the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREWAL: Indeed, the most frequent inquiries we already receive from the public concerning these investigations is, why is it taking so long, or when will you release additional information?

HERNANDEZ: The state's largest police union also opposes the bill. Rob Nixon is with the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB NIXON: The message that this bill is sending is that we can't be trusted and that some higher entity in Trenton could do a better job. I think the county prosecutor's offices are professional and well capable of doing this.

HERNANDEZ: Other states have taken steps to increase the firewall between investigators and police. Hawaii recently created a review board inside the state attorney general's office to investigate deaths involving police officers. And New York requires state officials to investigate when police kill an unarmed civilian. But Sheila Reid says there won't be any justice for families like hers until New Jersey and other states put similar protections in place.

S REID: The way it's going now, we're not going to have a standing chance. The police going to kill us one way or the other, and they going to get away with murder.

HERNANDEZ: New Jersey's Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, has not yet said whether he'll sign the bill.

For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez in Trenton.

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