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Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffery Sutherland calls new, statewide use-of-force policing policies “a sea change” for communities in terms of when force should be used.  

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COURT HOUSE - Describing several principles, training, policies and monitoring options, members of the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office shared the “tools in the toolbox” that law enforcement officers can use as part of new use-of-force policing policies implemented across the state.

Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffery Sutherland, Detective Sgt. Aaron Sykes and Cheryl Spaulding, community justice coordinator/public information officer, during a June 30 Zoom meeting, shared the background of the state attorney general's "Excellence in Policing" initiative, 2021 policy, training and detailed tracking via the Use of Force Reporting Portal, as well as the attorney general’s directive 2020-14, which establishes countywide working groups to address mental health and special needs populations.   

“There has been a sea change in New Jersey, in terms of when force should be used by law enforcement,” Sutherland said. “We want the public to understand these new programs that are designed to make our communities safe. Their goal is to strengthen relationships between law enforcement officers and the community.”

Sykes said that in December 2020, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) announced new use-of-force policies for all 38,000 law enforcement officers statewide that would cover policy, training and monitoring. The goal is to have it implemented and all officers trained by December 2021. 

The program includes three components:

* Professionalism - improving law enforcement training, overhauling the state’s Police Training Commission, promoting officer resiliency and identifying early warning signs for at-risk officers;

* Accountability - ensuring independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, creating a more robust police disciplinary process, developing a proposal for police licensure and setting minimum standards for civilian review boards and;

*Transparency - creating systems for timely disclosure of impeachment material, ensuring public release of police use-of-force footage, and collecting and publishing data on police use-of-force incidents.

The use-of-force policy is built on seven core principles, which Sykes explained as:

* Sanctity of human life

* De-escalation and use of force as a last resort

* Reasonable, necessary and proportional use of force

* Deadly force as a last resort

* Duty of (other police officers) to intervene

* Duty to render medical assistance (by police officers, instead of waiting for emergency medical services)

* Duty to report and review uses of force (before, it was reported and a supervisor would sign off. Now, a mini-investigation occurs by command staff).

Each officer also must undergo eight hours of training for Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE), and 12 hours of Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT), according to Sykes, among other “transformational” training.

“These are tools in the toolkit that an officer can call upon when they are in a situation," he explained. "All officers in the state are being trained on the same tactics, so when we are called in for mutual aid, we know what is supposed to be done. There are multiple routes to success, and the idea is to identify the opportunity, develop a plan and end safely.”

Sykes also said that training “has been lacking in many departments for front-line officers on how to deal with persons behaving erractically, suffering from mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress, and intellectual or developmental disabilities, who are unarmed or have a weapon other than a firearm."

“Now, 30% of the officers are training on crisis intervention teams,” he added, “which gives the officer the tools to stop, listen and decide which tool to use for action.”

ABLE training was first rolled out in New Orleans, Sykes said, and then tweaked and rolled out nationwide, including New Jersey. 

“The idea is to have a successful intervention by preventing harm and creating a law enforcement culture that supports peer intervention,” he said. “The training covers relevant social science inhibitors of why peer bystanders would not intervene, and then provides strategies and tactics of how to intervene and receive an intervention.”

Sutherland pointed out that in George Floyd’s murder, in Minneapolis, two officers undergoing training did not intervene when Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. 

“If they had intervened, maybe there would have been a different outcome,” he said.

Sutherland also said a simulation shooting range is used at the county Public Safety Training Center, which presents “scenarios where officers get to feel like they are part of a situation, presented with options. When you apply these options in real-life situations, you realize how important this training is.”

“Intervention is a teachable skill,” Sykes said. “We try to teach how to overcome inhibitors, such as rank or seniority.”

Another area training focuses on is the mental health of each officer. 

“This is part of our resiliency training,” Sykes explained, which supports the emotional and psychological well-being of police officers. 

A state directive established a state “chief resiliency officer” and required every local law enforcement agency to provide training and support to deal with the stress and trauma that officers endure. 

The initiative supplements an earlier directive that requires all police departments in New Jersey to implement “early warning systems,” which help law enforcement agencies identify officers who are at risk for harmful behavior and provide remedial programs for them before their conduct escalates.

Since October 2020, the state has been tracking every use-of-force incident in a new reporting system that is accessible to the public (njoag.gov/force). Sykes said the portal collects 70 data points and is used by 33,500 people from 545 agencies.

“There is a 30-day gap in the public’s view of the information, so it’s all had a chance to be collected,” he noted. The prosecutor’s and attorney general’s offices each have access to the data to analyze it and identify any disparities or areas for improvement.

Lastly, Spaulding explained there is an effort across the county to identify people with special needs, so if an incident occurs, the appropriate help will be provided by professionals.

“There is an attorney general directive to establish a countywide working group to address mental health and special needs people and create a mental health toolbox,” Sykes said.

Sutherland noted the group started in September 2020 and has been meeting monthly about how to respond to various scenes with the correct mental health professionals.  

“If the person is in our system and we know what the mental health issue is, we can have the right professional help intervene and take the lead,” said Sutherland.“If the person is unknown to us or has a weapon, then the police officer will have the lead.”

“The goal is to have this up and running by the end of the year,” he added. “It is a game-changer. We can respond appropriately, and if there is a mental health issue, then the mental health professional can take the lead and the police officer can get back on the streets.”

Spaulding said anyone who should be on the special needs list can email snrcontact@cmcpros.net or register at https://www.cmcsnr.org/.

The June 30 meeting was held as part of the OAG’s statewide community policing initiative launched in 2018, known as the 21/21 Community Policing Project (https://bit.ly/3h81Ld9), or simply “21/21.” 

Through the project, each of New Jersey’s 21 county prosecutors are asked to organize quarterly public discussions between law enforcement leaders and community stakeholders on issues relevant to community policing.

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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