TRENTON – Taking direct action to address an issue that in large measure has informed the national debate concerning police use of force and social justice, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced today the launch of SAFE STOP, a new statewide information sharing campaign designed to encourage safe traffic stops by building mutual trust between police and the communities they serve.
Joined by a host of partners from a broad and diverse range of New Jersey law enforcement organizations and community advocacy groups, Porrino said the national conversation regarding race, law enforcement and social justice is healthy, but that in the meantime, strategies to help reduce tensions and strengthen police-community relations – strategies like SAFE STOP –are essential.
“Let me be clear. Today’s announcement is not about taking sides. It is not about who is kneeling and who is not kneeling, and it’s not about who is right or who is wrong. The national debate – and the search for solutions – will continue into the future, as it should. But in the meantime – in the now– this is about building trust between police and the communities they serve, and it’s about saving lives,” said Porrino.
“We believe this initiative will save lives and avoid unnecessary injuries,” Porrino said while describing SAFE STOP, a campaign that will include, among other components, video Public Service Announcements featuring national celebrities such as former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal and former NFL Pro Bowl player Jessie Armstead, as well as community leaders, law enforcement members and other public figures.
SAFE STOP videos will air on television, in movie theaters, on-line and in multiple other venues, and will carry positive messages about the role civilians can play in helping to ensure that their encounters with law enforcement are safe and mutually-respectful.
The videos also will urge viewers to visit a dedicated website – SafeStopNJ.com – to learn more about their rights and obligations under the law, get tips on do’s and don’ts during a traffic stop, and learn how to pursue a complaint if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly by police.
With regard to complaints against police officers, a new Attorney General’s Directive is being issued in conjunction with the campaign to improve accountability in the internal affairs process. The Directive creates a new dedicated hotline – 833-4-SAFE-NJ –and web portal (www.safestopnj.com/complaint) so that citizens may follow up directly with the Attorney General’s Office in the event their complaints are not being addressed by local law enforcement in a timely fashion.
“This is not about politics and it’s not about fixing blame. This is about avoiding conflict and saving lives by doing what we can to ensure that both police and the citizens they serve are as informed as possible about their rights and obligations,” said Porrino.
New Jersey has been a national leader in actions taken to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve. Those actions – all of which have been directed at law enforcement – have included protocols to ensure conflict-free and transparent investigations of police-involved shootings and alleged police misconduct.
Other actions have included the roll-out of protocols for body worn cameras by police, and funding to encourage widespread use of the body cameras by law enforcement agencies. The Office of the Attorney General also fostered and encouraged community policing by, among other things, establishing the Detective Matthew L. Tarentino Community Policing Grant Program, which provides incentives for community policing programs that bring cops together with civilians – especially children and teen-agers – outside a law enforcement setting.
In addition, this year, the Attorney General mandated training – on an on-going basis – for all members of law enforcement through the Attorney General’s CLEAR Institute (Community Law Enforcement Affirmative Relations.) Through the CLEAR program, continuing education for sworn law enforcement members is already under way in such areas as implicit bias, de-escalation techniques and cultural awareness, and is now an annual requirement for every police officer working in New Jersey.
“Up until now,” Porrino said, “we have taken many actions designed to prevent conflict and strengthen police-community relations throughout New Jersey, but those actions have all been directed at, and focused on, members of law enforcement. SAFE STOP represents – for the first time – an effort focused on sharing information with members of the public who, inevitably, are going to be on the other side of any police-citizen encounter.”
For example, many civilians aren’t aware that under the law, if an officer instructs a driver to get out of his car, the driver must comply – regardless of whether or not he believes the stop was warranted, thinks any laws have been broken, or agrees that the command was justified.
Similarly, some drivers may believe that, upon being pulled over, rapidly moving to extract their motor vehicle registration and insurance card from the glove box is the preferred way to proceed. In fact, such quick movements – especially in the dark – will create concern on the part of the approaching officer. It is preferable, he explained, to roll down your window, place your hands on the steering wheel and then request permission to retrieve your documents.
Attorney General Porrino said many New Jersey citizens – and ultimately police officers as well – can benefit from the kind of information that is being made available through SAFE STOP.
Porrino said he’s been heartened by the positive response and enthusiastic support SAFE STOP has received to date from a broad cross-section of law enforcement and community organizations, as well as a number of high-profile public figures approached by his office and invited to participate.
To date, non-law-enforcement partners in the SAFE STOP effort include:
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
- New Jersey NAACP
- Latino Leadership Alliance
- National Action Network
- Islamic Society of Basking Ridge
- Trenton Capitol City Community Coalition
- Garden State Equality
- Friendship Baptist Church in Trenton
- Paradise Baptist Church in Newark.
Law enforcement partners include:
- National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)
- Asian-American Law Enforcement Association
- New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police
- Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA)
- New Jersey State Police
- County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey.
“We truly appreciate the support and involvement of all our community and law enforcement partners, as well as the readiness of busy celebrities to be generous with their time,” said Porrino. “All of these entities and individuals have come together to lend their voices to a single cause, and that cause is to save lives by fostering greater awareness and trust between police and citizens.”
Porrino explained that SAFE STOP evolved against a backdrop of national tension over a series of police-involved shooting incidents in which routine traffic stops turned deadly – including one in North Charleston, SC in which an officer fatally shot a fleeing motorist in the back and later pleaded guilty to murder charges – and the subsequent ambush killings of multiple police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge only days apart in July 2016.
The traffic-stops-turned-violent and the killing of police officers appeared to contribute to a widening gap in trust between civilians and law enforcement members that was borne out by polling data from across the country. For example, Porrino noted, a respected national poll conducted by Reason-Rupe in 2016 found that only 16 percent of black respondents and 23 percent of Hispanic respondents felt police only used lethal force when necessary.
Another survey – conducted by the Pew Research Center – found that many police officers espoused a growing resentment about what they viewed as an erosion of public support and respect that made it harder to do their jobs, and might sometimes put them in danger. According to the Pew Research survey, 72 percent of 8,000 police officers polled said they’d become more hesitant to stop and question suspicious individuals as a result of the perceived trend.
Porrino said the growing dynamic of mutual mistrust “isn’t fair to our citizens and isn’t fair to our police officers,” and that the SAFE STOP concept seems like an important next step in avoiding unnecessary escalation and violence.
“It’s really a very simple premise – if, during a traffic stop or other encounter both the civilian and the police officer trust that neither intends to hurt the other, it’s less likely the encounter will turn violent,” said the Attorney General.
“We’re not naïve,” Porrino said. “We see SAFE STOP as a conversation-starter, not a cure all. The public discourse and disagreement should and will go on. But in the meantime, as we work to improve trust and find answers, our belief and our hope is that SAFE STOP will help reduce tensions, reduce conflict and keep routine police encounters from turning deadly.”
Porrino said one of the most important components of SAFE STOP is the one that provides citizens recourse if they’ve been treated unfairly or disrespectfully by a police officer.
Under the Attorney General’s Directive issued in conjunction with SAFE STOP, every police department is obligated to intake citizen complaints, investigate them, and by virtue of this directive provide the complaining citizen an accounting of the investigation result.
Porrino reminded the public that if citizens who pursue a complaint fail to receive a response, SAFE STOP provides the dedicated hotline number – 833-4-SAFE-NJ, and web portal: www.safestopnj.com/complaint. Complaints will be addressed directly by the Office of the Attorney General.
Through the hotline number and web portal, Porrino said, citizens who believe they are not receiving cooperation or answers from the police department they’ve filed a complaint with can communicate directly with, and obtain information from, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
“Bad cops give everybody in law enforcement a bad name. They breed mistrust and undermine the efforts of good cops, so we want them off the road,” said Porrino. “That is why I issued the Directive on complaints and investigations, and it’s why we’ve established a hotline number and web portal. As important as the information sharing component of SAFE STOP is, it’s ultimately about more than that. In the end it’s about building police-community trust, and you can’t have trust without transparency and accountability. We are committed to ensuring both.”
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