The recent introduction and movement of legislation to establish a licensing procedure for New Jersey law enforcement officers has triggered a number of important questions about what this means to their profession. The legislation is moving quickly through the process and very likely will be law by the end of June.
Despite New Jersey law enforcement already working under very clear forfeiture of office standards, there was mounting pressure to create a distinct licensing standard. The initial proposals for licensing date back to late 2020 and many of those ideas would have devasted the law enforcement profession, undermined the internal affairs process and weakened policing to the point of defeat.
Thankfully, the New Jersey State PBA was approached in late 2021 to discuss the framework of licensing that would uplift and not deflate policing. After nearly six months of negotiations, the legislation that will soon become law was agreed to. In the end, the State PBA, FOP and State Troopers unions all agreed to back the legislation as carefully drafted.
But that does not mean reasonable questions about what it means don’t still exist. The following is a summary of answers to many of those questions. This not meant to be an exhaustive overview as the bill is nearly 30 pages long and the Police Training Commission must establish rules to create this process over time.
What is licensing?
The legislation will create a license under which law enforcement officers will use to work in New Jersey. Minimum standards are established for employment and severe violations of the law could lead to a license being suspended or revoked under procedures established by the bill. This is the same process used to govern every regulated profession in New Jersey from doctors and dentists to electricians and plumbers.
Who does it cover?
The bill extends the license requirements to every law enforcement officer employed in a state, county or local law enforcement agency including the NJ State Police, state and county correctional police officers, sheriffs, prosecutors and Department of Criminal Justice detectives, state law enforcement units, campus police and specials (Section 2).
What power will the PTC have?
The Police Training Commission (PTC) will be granted the authority to issue and renew licenses and to hold hearings on the status of a license through a “Licensing Committee” in cases where an officer has violated the standards of employment outlined in the bill. The PTC will have the power to deny, suspend, place limitations on or revoke licenses. The PTC also has the authority to place a suspension on hold pending an officer completing training, counseling or treatment.
I am already employed. Can the PTC deny me a license?
Officers is considered to be “in good standing” unless they have committed a limited number of disqualifying acts. Standards for issuance of a license are outlined in Section 14 of the bill.
How does an officer lose a license?
The bill establishes a number of areas that may lead to a hearing on an officer’s license. However, these are all in areas that would lead to termination and forfeiture of public office today without licensing in place. These include practicing fraud or deceit in the role of an officer, conviction of a crime or act of domestic violence, sustained findings of filing false police reports, sustained findings of destroying evidence, termination by an employer and other matters.
Does the law make the PTC a part of the IA process?
No, the PTC does not interject themselves in an active IA investigation and it is not a new level of IA for an officer to have to defend against. The PTC shall be notified of certain sustained disciplinary matters – for example, major discipline, excessive use of force, pending criminal charges – but that does not necessarily trigger a license review. In fact, the PTC is not required to act on these notifications except in limited circumstances. If the commission does take on a review of a license, it may request a summary of the IA file but may not impose additional discipline unrelated to the license itself. However, as stated above, the suspension or revocation of a license is only in play in certain limited and serious circumstances in which an officer today would be facing termination or suspension without pay.
What are my rights if the PTC reviews my license?
If a violation of one of the provisions of Section 19 is alleged, the PTC licensing committee can opt to hold a hearing or request a hearing officer to consider the matter and report back. The officer would be permitted to be represented and present his or her case. The licensing committee would issue a determination and the PTC would have the opportunity to approve or change the recommendation. An adverse ruling could be appealed to the superior court by the officer.
What happens if the PTC is late issuing license renewals?
A license is considered in good standing at all times and shall be considered renewed procedurally pending formal approval of the renewal application. At no time will an officer be “unlicensed” due to paperwork lateness or failure of the PTC to act in a timely manner.
What is this going to cost?
Nothing. Active law enforcement officers shall not be charged any fees under the bill. The PTC can charge fees for academy recruits for their initial training and licensure.
When does this take effect?
Licensing will take effect on the first day of the 18th month following the bill being signed into law. For example, if the bill is signed into law in June of 2022 licensing will begin on Jan. 1, 2024.
How does this change the police profession?
In many ways, this legislation will strengthen and professionalize policing in New Jersey. In reality, there is nothing in this bill that changes the day-to-day responsibilities of law enforcement officers. The things that would get you fired today are no different than what would get a license revoked in the future. The bill will ensure that those very few who should not be wearing a law enforcement uniform are removed from the profession and are not allowed to bounce from agency to agency under the cover of darkness.