Taking a Knee to Public Safety

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As Governor Phil Murphy’s pick for top cop, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has become the perfect chameleon, changing his ideological stripes against whatever political backdrop he finds himself. Since taking office in 2018, Grewal has spent much of his first two years suing and publicly berating Donald Trump. His department directives have also seeded a radical police reform agenda amid claims that they were already on the drawing board long before the 2020 summer of unrest

That was a half-truth.

In 2018, Grewal released his Immigrant Trust Directive, a mandate that put a chokehold on cops enforcing federal immigration law. It instructed law enforcement to dishonor ICE immigration detainers for jailed illegals and prohibited participation in their street enforcement operations. It also prevented prosecutors from raising the issue of immigration status during trial proceedings or in requiring detention as a flight risk.

Then came George Floyd.

Floyd’s death was, if anything, an epiphanous event to Grewal, driving him to extremes to reimagine policing in a state where police reform was well underway, cities engaged in innovative police-community relations, and effective crime fighting and information-sharing collaborations were best practice across the more than 500 urban and suburban police departments. With very few exceptions promptly quelled by arrests, Floyd and BLM-sponsored protests were free from the burning and plundering seen in the neighboring states. Newark, the state’s largest city, had reduced shootings in 2020 by thirty percent and police hadn’t fired a single shot in all of that year, making it the shiny object in American policing. If Grewal truly believed that Jerseyans distrusted their police, he would have to rely on straw arguments and sow discontent within his own rank and file.

Grewal let loose a blitz of media interviews, tweets, and opinion pieces that were an exemplar of virtue signaling. His directives on use of force, body cameras, and police discipline played more into the hands of black bloc’ers than the welfare of the thin blue line. Prim and well-spoken in public, he charmed the woke merchants at The Atlantic and Washington Post, hawking the line that his office was leading the country in police reform. For good measure, he lowered himself to online rants and potshots at the Trump White House, calling the president a huckster and advancing a non sequitur to his Twitter followers that the coronation of Joe Biden predestined the return of democracy to America. Through all of the drivel, his invocation of Floyd’s name was ubiquitous and foreshadowed an enfilade on the state’s 36,000 law enforcement professionals.

Dismissing advice from police chiefs and rank and file unions often absent from the discussion, in 2020 Grewal issued two directives with significant impact to the safe conduct of risky police operations. Directive 2021-5 amended the state’s body camera policy, expanding its use to tactical entry teams, drug sweeps, and other street-level investigative operations. Recording the entry tactics and survival techniques of pre-planned and rehearsed SWAT operations was the functional equivalent of pasting one’s battle plan to the inside of a felon’s door.

The decree also denied officers the ability to review their own body cam footage as an essential means to prepare accurate after-action reports, especially crucial when recounting highly dynamic and emotionally-charged incidents requiring the use of deadly force. Nowhere mentioned in the 27 pages of Grewal’s new policy were the indisputable psychological and physical manifestations and after-effects of police-involved shootings, during which temporal loss of auditory function and peripheral vision, crippling anxiety, and memory lapses occur. In these supercharged and often arm’s-length public encounters, officers sharply focus upon threat but often lose awareness of their surroundings. Misrecollections cause unwitting omissions in reports and testimony that not only offers unfair advantage to felons and their attorneys, but also unnecessarily impugns the reputation and credibility of police officers.

Directive 2020-6 ordered every police department in the state to disclose to the public the circumstances and identity of any police officer who was fired, demoted, or suspended for five or more days. In the case of just one department, this disclosure would extend back twenty years and involve almost 500 state troopers, most of whom had long since retired and some deceased. Overturning statute and regulation without recourse or challenge, Grewal reversed hundreds of confidentiality agreements legally struck by previous attorneys general and other state and local prosecutors.

It also mattered little to Grewal that the majority of missteps by his own state-level cops involved administrative infractions and off-duty behavior, such as driving under the influence, minor domestic squabbles, or failure to file reports in a timely fashion. Less than two percent, just eight of 495, involved excessive use of force, the cause celebre of the progressive defund movement and a pretext for urban destruction and cop-shaming by Antifa hobgoblins. The New Jersey State Police, in fact, boast some of the most stringent ethical and disciplinary standards in the police world, casting a wide net for wrongdoing within the force and setting the bar far higher than most other professions, including law and medicine, where negligence is often settled with sealed court records, hushed payouts, and nondisclosure agreements.

Directive 2020-13 spotlighted police use of force, much of it echoing the best practices already drummed into the heads of Jersey cops through academy curricula and annual refreshers. For instance, when use of force is necessary use as little as possible and as a last resort, never use chokeholds or head strikes until you have to absolutely choke or strike to survive a deadly encounter, don’t fire at a moving vehicle unless the driver is hell-bent on using it to kill you, and you should provide medical aid to anyone injured by the use of force. Virtually all of this was turn-of-the-century doctrine to cops; Grewal’s attempt to rebrand it was self-aggrandizement, at best.

June 2021 was sizing up to be a bad month for Grewal, starting out with the hijinks of a principal deputy attorney general, Brian Biscieglia, who was exposed on Facebook and Twitter for his cop-hating diatribes and fondness for drug cartel leaders. Weeks later, he is apparently still on the payroll, revealing a far greater tolerance by Grewal for the misbehavior of close associates.

On June 29, after resurrecting bygone transgressions by his own office that shut down gay bars between 1933 and 1967, Grewal made the media swoon by scheduling a formal apology to the LGBTQ community in Asbury Park and laying down a permanent marker at the former site of an outlawed business. For New Jersey, not a good moment; to Grewal, a woke opportunity pulled from the dustbin of history.

Hours before arriving in Asbury Park came sudden word that Grewal was resigning to take a federal job, fueling speculation of friction between an authoritarian governor and an attorney general whose more radical brand of progressivism got the bigger headlines. Grewal had sided with forces aligned against the cops, prompted local prosecutors to look away from COVID violations at BLM protests, sought the power to impose state consent decrees upon police departments, supported antiracism training for K-12 schoolkids, and was suffering a thousand cuts from union lawsuits targeting his policies. His persona had become political baggage too heavy to lift in a gubernatorial election year.

Grewal had used Jersey cops as steppingstones to showcase his liberal qualifications for a Biden appointment to the bench. Instead, he’s heading off to rally the guvvies enforcing the rules and regs at the Securities and Exchange Commission. For Grewal, an elephant’s burial ground of sorts.

Image: Office of the NJ Attorney General

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