On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer who was certified under Minnesota’s POST (Police Officer Standards and Training) program, leaned on the neck of George Floyd and ultimately took Floyd’s life. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Floyd, Chauvin’s behavior was inexcusable to anyone watching the video. His knee was on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. There is no training that could have changed those actions or that outcome.
Prior to this heinous act, members of the press were badgering legislators about licensing our police officers, since we are one of the five states that does not have a conventional licensing process. Somehow, they mistakenly believe that creating another degree of bureaucracy will disallow bad behavior by law enforcement officers. They do not take into account the fact that we have a forfeiture statute that effectively does the same thing as revoking a license. I said then, as I say now, what we really need is a clearinghouse of sorts that would collect information on major discipline (not the AG’s or Civil Service’s definitions, but a legitimate one) and law enforcement officers who move from one agency to another. We then need to hold the chiefs accountable for doing a proper background investigation. This isn’t to say that almost all chiefs don’t take their responsibilities very seriously. But coupling another tool with a requirement to use it will almost always stop a police officer who is inclined to commit bad acts from doing so in a second agency.
While we in law enforcement have all borne the burden of Chauvin’s actions over the last nearly nine months, let’s look at some data. In 2019, the last full year of stats kept by The Washington Post, which is no friend of law enforcement, 12 people were shot by police in our state. Six were black, three were white, one was Hispanic and two were not identified by race. All were armed, even though one was with a toy gun and one with a garden tool. So no unarmed people were shot by police in 2019 in New Jersey, according to The Washington Post. Maybe New Jersey has got it right.
Out of the five states that don’t have a licensing requirement, New Jersey and Rhode Island are in the bottom 10 percent when ranking police-involved deaths, according to Statista. Once again, without a licensing process. Maybe New Jersey has got it right.
One may say that a disproportionate number of black people were killed by the police as compared to the population, and that needs research, but the fact that they were all armed, regardless of race, removes much of the racial component. The data does not show if people who were not minorities were not shot in deadly force.
This has nothing to do with licensing. The fact that New Jersey’s police officers have a level of training that far exceeds that of the national average is the reason that our interactions are less violent. The shame about the proposed licensing proposals is that several of the iterations being floated around include statutory components that specify types of training. This is particularly troubling as training must be fluid, and components by and large can’t be specifically memorialized.
There are so many facets to this issue, and there is no doubt that we will have a different system in the coming months. We will continue to work diligently with our colleagues on the Police Training Commission, who to date have produced a very workable draft through exhaustive research of the best practices of other states. We are also maintaining dialogue with legislators to develop a model that will once again land us at the forefront of the professional standards of policing in the country.