A message to the Facebook warriors

Legislative Report 

It is indisputable that social media has become the most immediate way for people of all ages to share their thoughts, hopes, best wishes and outrage. It has become ubiquitous in modern society, and there are some people who can’t go seconds without checking their social media. But there are some topics that require more than posting and commenting on Facebook. When an issue is new, complicated or confusing, some deeper level of direct communication, and the comprehension one learns from it, is required.

I refer in this particular instance to the flurry of angry and mostly misinformed Facebook (and other social media) comments New Jersey legislators received following the passage of the new licensing law for law enforcement officers. I want to preface my comments by being clear this is not a challenge to PBA members expressing themselves to their elected officials. In fact, we have been begging members to step up and engage politicians for nearly a decade. But it would help that when one contacts a legislator with demands and angry messages, the message being stated are indeed the facts.

Let’s establish a few of those facts. The topic of police licensing first erupted in the New Jersey not long after the George Floyd murder. In fact, we were approached with a bill draft on licensing in 2020, which we unequivocally rejected. The Police Training Commission (PTC) began researching licensing not long after that and the issue hovered in the background until late 2021, when we were asked to give our views on a different approach to the topic. Those talks started to develop into something real in 2022.

These communications were not done in secret. In fact, a review of the minutes from NJ State PBA Board of Delegates meetings show that licensing was discussed in 2020 (June, July, September and October), 2021 (January, February, March and April) and most certainly this year (every meeting from February to July). I would suggest this issue should not have caught anyone napping.

I also need to be clear that we did not go seeking this proposal. We already have a form of licensing through forfeiture of public office laws. This licensing law in many ways mimics what already gets an officer banned from future employment.

But when it became clear that a bill was being drafted and the attorney general and governor’s office asked for our input, we had to respond. And thank God we did, because what was originally on the table was not pretty. Our input definitely turned that first proposal from chicken crap into chicken salad, if you know what I mean.

Now there is something else worth discussing here, and it may not go over well to some readers. If the reason you never knew about the development or discussion of a licensing bill (despite it being mentioned at 14 state meeting) is that you do not attend your Local meetings, then maybe you should just stay off Facebook and take time to engage your Local. The person you should be asking questions to is your State Delegate, not your legislator. And if your State Delegate is one of the far too many who don’t attend State PBA meetings, then that is its own extremely serious problem.

Yes, life gets in the way. Families demand your extra time. The job is too short-staffed to escape.

All good excuses – once in a while. But if any State Delegates missed most or all of those 14 meetings when licensing was raised since 2020, and then didn’t report information to Local members, then maybe they need to reconsider holding the position. Board of Delegates meetings are the best place to learn, ask questions, solve problems and exchange info. Considering the value of them, the number of State Delegates absent from meetings for long stretches is unacceptable.

But I digress.

I also respect the right for members to disagree with a position the State PBA may take on an issue. The State PBA is not infallible. But we are informative, and we answer questions. The best place to get answers to questions about legislation is through your State Delegate, not through a Facebook message to a state legislator.

For one, you will receive from us firsthand information and historical analysis of how things developed and what a law really says. Two, you have to realize that many legislators, when faced with a chorus of uniform complaints, are going to call us to ask what is going on. So in the end, legislative matters on law enforcement issues almost always come full circle back to us.

Having heard what has been posted on Facebook, it is also clear that the keyboard warriors have not read the bill or do not understand how one section of a bill ties in with another. For example, there were complaints that the law would “eliminate First Amendment rights” or prevent members from professing “deeply held religious views” because an applicant for an initial license needs to list their social media accounts. The law does neither of those things, nor does it try to.

Let’s look at what the law requires. Section 14 requires an “applicant for an initial law enforcement license or a probationary license” do the following:

“provide to the commission and the applicant’s employing law enforcement unit a complete list of all social media accounts maintained by the applicant and grant to the commission and the applicant’s employing law enforcement unit access to all outwardly facing activity and publicly accessible components of the accounts.”

Social media is mentioned three times in the 25-page law. Yet you would think a new Big Brother-level PTC was about to spy on the ranks. A more methodical reading of the law, however, shows that an applicant only has to provide a list of public social media accounts and provide access to them (as in letting the PTC/employer see the public account). It doesn’t ask for passwords or private group membership.

The purpose of seeing your accounts is not to fire you or deny you a license for voting for Donald Trump, liking a post about the Supreme Court 2nd Amendment or abortion decisions or calling Phil Murphy a socialist. The purpose of it is to ensure that officers or applicants are not actively supporting groups that seek to overthrow the government or espouse racist or discriminatory views (see sections 14 and 17) that would make their service as a fair and impartial law enforcement officer impossible.

I believe agencies require this of applicants today. Espousing hatred for others or supporting groups that seek to topple the government will already get you suspended and/or prosecuted with or without licensing. But the bill doesn’t trample your First Amendment rights or say you can’t speak your mind.

And a deeper dive must touch on reality. There are somewhere near 40,000 active law enforcement officers in New Jersey covered by the law. The PTC will need to license all of them and then start a renewal process. The PTC does not have unlimited staff members, and it is unlikely the ones they have will be reviewing every vacation post, stupid meme or insipid opinion an applicant posts on Facebook.

And even if a post hits a nerve, the PTC is made up of honorable law enforcement officer who are not in this to fire people. There is a hearing process that gives every officer due process, and the PTC has many options at its disposal, from requiring that an officer seek counseling to full-on license denial. And think about reality for a minute. Are you concerned one of your posts will get you suspended or fired today? If not, then the PTC is not going to come after your license.

We’ve also received reports of complaints that the PTC is expanding to add two public members who are most surely going to be, in the opinion of a few of the social media warriors, anti-cop socialists appointed by Governor Murphy.

First, the State PBA welcomes the addition of more public members because we know the PTC is a professional organization and that New Jersey law enforcement officers are the best trained in the nation. We have nothing to hide from any new or current PTC member. Transparency to the public of those facts is not something to fear.

Second, the PTC is also expanding by adding a representative of the State Troopers Fraternal Association (STFA) so that rank-and-file NJ State Police officers can have a say for their members in the licensing process. Assuming, as the warriors suggest, the two new members are anti-cop (never mind that the current public members are not anti-cop), then one of those votes would be blunted by another law enforcement officer on the commission.

Finally, a governor’s political affiliation is not a guarantee an appointment will be good or bad for us. Governor Christie filled his administration with appointments so bad for law enforcement in agencies like PERC and the Civil Service Commission that the damage is still being undone five years after he left office. Governor Murphy’s politics are admittedly on the left, but he has not personally meddled in law enforcement practices, and we do not believe he is going to use the PTC to dismantle law enforcement as we know it.

Remember, dear warriors, that the PTC is not a new form of IA under the law. A license review only kicks in at the PTC level if an officer violates very clear law and guidelines (see Sections 16 and 17). By the time the PTC gets engaged in IA, the prosecutor’s office will already have had its say.

But if you’re truly worried about Big Brother, then just delete your Facebook account and spare yourself the heartburn. Get engaged in the union. Attend your Local meetings and, if your State Delegates don’t, then hold them accountable.

Lastly, don’t bother trying to track me down on Facebook to comment. I don’t have an account, nor would I waste my time on one.