Revamped legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gary S. Schaer, Speaker Vincent Prieto, Shavonda Sumter, Joseph Danielsen and Gordon M. Johnson to better prepare law enforcement agencies to handle racial, ethnic, religious and various other diversities within their respective communities has been signed into law.
The bill (A-1663) that was originally approved by the legislature in the spring would have required every local and county law enforcement department in the state to develop and adopt a cultural diversity training course. The revamped legislation signed today incorporates suggestions made in the Governor’s conditional veto of the bill to instead require the Department of Law and Public Safety to develop or identify uniform cultural diversity training course materials and an online tutorial, and to periodically update them, as appropriate.
“Without an inherent understanding of a particular culture, there can be a tendency toward 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 the last year or two 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. This new law remains true to that goal.”
“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 law takes a proactive approach to building greater understanding and cooperation.”
Under the new law, the materials and tutorial must include instruction designed to promote positive interaction with, and community outreach to, all residents within a community, including residents of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.
The department is also required to make the materials and online tutorial available to every state, county, and municipal law enforcement department and to each campus police department at an institution of higher education that appoints police officers. These law enforcement agencies may use the training materials or online tutorial in providing in-service training to officers.
“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.”
“The bottom line is that understanding the people the department serves is an important part of community policing,” said Danielsen (D-Middlesex/Somerset). “One of the primary responsibilities of a law enforcement officer is to interact with people of various cultures, and this law will ensure that officers can do so appropriately.”
“Oftentimes, all it takes to de-escalate a situation is an officer being able to relate to members of the community,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “Cultural diversity training can help law enforcement officers strengthen their relationships with citizens, which ultimately creates a safer environment for everyone involved.”
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 officers who serve them.