Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer, Speaker Vincent Prieto and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter to better prepare all local and county law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey to handle racial, ethnic, religious and various other diversities within their respective communities continued advancing through the legislature on Thursday.
The bill (A-4343) would require each county and municipal law enforcement department to develop and adopt a cultural diversity training course that includes instruction and exercises designed to promote positive interaction with the racial, ethnic, and religious communities within each department’s respective jurisdiction, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals within the community. Each municipal and county law enforcement officer would be required to participate in the course as part of in-service training.
“Without an inherent understanding of a particular culture, there can be a tendency towards overgeneralization or labeling. This is how stereotyping is born and also how deeply divisive misunderstandings can occur,” said Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Given all that we’ve witnessed in recent months throughout the country, greater emphasis must be placed on partnering law enforcement agencies with ethnic, cultural, religious and social organizations to develop strategies that encourage a true understanding of one another and meaningful community engagement.”
“There is a vicious cycle that can develop because of a lack of cultural education, one that begins with stereotyping and then breeds distrust of law enforcement,” said Prieto (D-Bergen/Hudson). “Without the trust of the community, law enforcement, in turn, has a hard time functioning. It’s time to break this cycle and start a meaningful dialogue between communities and those sworn to protect them. This bill takes into account the fact that each community is unique and has its own set of concerns and takes a proactive approach to build greater understanding and cooperation.”
“Law enforcement officers have a sworn duty to protect and serve people of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. However, police interactions with residents can be complicated by situations where there is a lack of knowledge about the cultural diversity in the community,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This can lead to inadvertent violations of someone’s rights or create safety risks for a law enforcement officer. It’s crucial, especially in today’s climate, that we work to foster a better understanding on both sides of the street.”
Schaer noted that towns like Lakewood, Passaic, West Windsor and Plainsboro, which have very diverse populations, have taken a proactive approach in recent months to build greater understanding between residents and the communities that serve them.
Specifically, the bill would require that the cultural diversity training course curriculum include a tutorial on:
1) the various cultural communities and the effects of diversity on community relations within each law enforcement department’s jurisdiction;
2) appropriate methods by which an officer may interact with people of various cultures and religions in the community, with an emphasis on officer safety skills and conflict resolution techniques;
3) best practices in law enforcement techniques when analyzing and solving local neighborhood problems, meeting with community groups, and working with citizens on crime prevention programs;
4) the impact that police diversity skills have on overall law enforcement effectiveness; and
5) the community’s perception of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups with specific attention to local stereotypes and cultural assumptions that negatively impact public safety.
In addition, the bill would require the chief law enforcement officer of each county and municipal law enforcement department to develop and adopt a cultural diversity action plan, which is to include strategies for outreach programs that address the social and criminal concerns of the community, as well as efforts taken on behalf of the department in forming partnerships with various cultural, religious, civic and LGBT organizations. The plan is to emphasize positive relationships between the police and various community groups that encourage a willingness to collaborate in identifying community safety issues and establish innovative strategies designed to create safe and stable neighborhoods.
The bill also requires each county and municipal police department to submit the plan, along with the training course curriculum, to the Attorney General within one year of the bill’s effective date and at least once every three years thereafter. The Attorney General may periodically assess the plans to determine whether each department is meeting its goals in providing a cultural diversity education course and formulating a cultural diversity action plan.
The bill was approved by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. The full Assembly approved the bill in May. It now awaits final legislative approval by the full Senate.