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Schaer, Prieto, Sumter, Danielsen & Johnson Bill Requiring Diversity Training for Law Enforcement Gains Final Approval

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 gained final legislative approval 24-16 from the Senate on Monday.

The bill (A-1663), which was approved by the Assembly in April, now heads to the Governor’s desk.

“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.”

The legislation 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. Each law enforcement officer would be required to participate in the course as part of in-service training.

“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 building 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.”

Specifically, the bill would require that the cultural diversity training course curriculum include a tutorial on:
– the various cultural communities and the effects of diversity on community relations within each law enforcement department’s jurisdiction;
– 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;
– 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;
– the impact that police diversity skills have on overall law enforcement effectiveness; and
– 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.

“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 bill 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.

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, and civic 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.

Under the bill, an institution of higher education which appoints campus police officers shall also require officers to undergo cultural diversity training, to be administered by the institution’s governing body.