Updated Jan 30, 8:45 PM; Posted Jan 30, 3:42 PM
By S.P. Sullivan | NJ Advance Media for

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed legislation taking fatal police shooting inquiries out of the hands of county prosecutors and turning them over to state investigators.
The governor, who faced a Thursday deadline to sign or veto the legislation, approved the measure (S1036) despite objections from his own attorney general, calling it “a limited solution to a challenging issue.”
The new law was a victory for police reform advocates who had lobbied for years to change how New Jersey handled deadly police shooting probes, which are among the most fraught cases prosecutors handle. Its signing drew stern rebuke from police union leaders, who argued it was unnecessary and undermined the reputation of police and prosecutors.
The measure, passed by the Legislature in December, would require the attorney general to supersede county prosecutors in any death investigation involving law enforcement and, if charges are brought, to try the case in another county.
Currently, most police shooting investigations in New Jersey are handled by county prosecutors if they involve local police and turned over to a specialized “shooting response team” in the Attorney General’s Office only if they involve county or state officers. The attorney general does have the power to supersede local prosecutors in almost any inquiry, however.
An effort to change that started as the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence amid national scrutiny of police shootings involving young black men. Murphy was under intense pressure from progressive religious leaders and other advocates who said he promised on the campaign trail to sign the bill into lawAdvocates for the legislation said county prosecutors can have too-close relationships with local police that cast a cloud over police shooting inquiries. One of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-Essex, said Wednesday the new law would “be of assistance to officers who are doing the right thing while also sifting out biases that exist amongst those armed with power.”
Zellie Thomas, a Paterson-based activist, wrote in an op-ed on that “the uncertainty about whether an officer is acquitted because of the facts or because of a relationship with a prosecutor’s office could disappear instantly by putting the investigation in someone else’s hands as a matter of course.”
But Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who was appointed by Murphy, testified against the bill in December, telling lawmakers the legislation as written will slow down police shooting inquiries in the hours immediately after a person’s death by requiring county officials stay clear of the scene and wait for state investigators to arrive. He said a frequent source of criticism of police shooting investigations, which can drag on for months, is how long they take
“Requiring that all of these cases be handled by the Attorney General’s Office, which has staffing constraints, creates the risk of slower investigations and outcomes,” he wrote. “And requiring the presentment of evidence to a grand jury, even if a prosecutor does not believe the evidence to be credible, raises difficult questions regarding prosecutors’ ethical and professional responsibilities.”
Still, he wrote, the governor has “full confidence” that the attorney general can investigate fatal shootings and will likely clarify portions of the bill through regulations or directives.
The bill drew increased attention in the aftermath of the death of Jameek Lowery, a 27-year-old Paterson resident who died in the hospital after a bizarre incident in which he arrived at Paterson police headquarters and begged for help, streaming the ordeal in a Facebook live video.
The Paterson Police Department had been under scrutiny amid an unrelated FBI probe that had implicated five police officers on a range of civil rights and drug offenses. Lowery’s family has called for an independent inquiry, saying he suffered a broken cheekbone and fractured eye socket during the ordeal and arguing authorities have not been forthcoming with details.Officials later said Lowery had tested positive for meningitis, and it’s unclear whether the new law would apply to his case because he died more than 48 hours after arriving at the police station.

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