Larry Hamm led the People’s Organization for Progress on a 67-mile march from Montclair to Trenton to demand justice, but New Jersey’s political establishment does not seem to be listening.
Hamm wants the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate President to post legislation for a vote so that lawmakers can give municipalities the authority to create Civilian Complaint Review Boards at the municipal or county level with subpoena powers to evaluate police operations and conduct.
Senate Bill No. 2963 and Assembly Bill No. 4656 would authorize municipalities and counties to establish local civilian review boards to review police operations and conduct.
The Senate bill has languished in committee but after four Black members of the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee—Shavonda E. Sumter, Jamel C. Holley, Angela V. McKnight, and William W. Spearman—advanced its version of the legislation, Speaker Craig Coughlin stuck it back into the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
When three Black members of that panel—Herb Conaway, Jr., Gordon M. Johnson, and Cleopatra G. Tucker—prevailed upon their colleagues John J. Burzichelli, Gary S. Schaer, Wayne P. DeAngelo, and Eliana Pintor Marin and approved it, Coughlin committed the measure to the Assembly Budget Committee.
Hamm also joined by 91-year-old Reverend Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church, who experienced a religious conversion while imprisoned for armed robbery and assault in 1953, and emerged as an activist in the struggle for school integration, working with organizations such as Operation Breadbasket, the Coalition of Concerned Leaders and Citizens to Save Our Jobs in 1977, and the African People’s Christian Organization.
Also making the journey with Hamm was William Davis Jr.—popularly known as Bill Davis and also affectionately called Brother Black—a Newark native raised and educated in Plainfield, who after witnessing the rebellion (aka race riots) in 1967, began a lifelong quest for freedom and justice.
Champions say without subpoena power, civilian review boards are toothless tigers.
Civil rights advocates say such a law is needed in order to keep an eye on the police and prevent the possibility of another George Floyd police murder.
The City of Newark adopted a 2016 ordinance that established a civilian police review board and authorized it to conduct investigations of complaints about police misconduct, review the Newark Police Division’s Internal Affairs Unit’s investigations of police misconduct and make disciplinary recommendations to the Public Safety director.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the city lacked power to give its Civilian Complaint Review Board the authority to subpoena information, but the case to the highest court in the nation.
On Jan. 19, Newark filed court papers seeking the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of New Jersey’s decision, which was issued back in August 2020. State justices issued a 6-1 decision to strip the CCRB of its ability to issue subpoenas and conduct parallel investigations with the Newark Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit.
“During every step of this journey, I promised we will fight to win this case until all judicial and legislative options are exhausted,” Mayor Ras Baraka said. “In the long, tortured history of police brutality against Black Americans, we have learned the only possible guarantee of full police transparency and accountability lies in the hands of the people they are sworn to protect.
“The rise in fatalities of men and women in police custody happening around the country has left communities in despair, feeling targeted and on the wrong side of justice,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), one of the bill’s sponsors. “When we talk about restoring community and police relations, the involvement of community member’s in the dialogue that directly affects their neighborhoods and the actions taken by police in their communities is now critical to maintaining social justice. This is about fostering transparency, fairness, and equality in justice served. It will do more to nurture positive relations in future between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
A resolution presented by the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition last year and supported by the Highland Park Human Relations Commission was unanimously approved by the Highland Park Borough Council at their June 15 meeting, calling on lawmakers to approve the law.
The resolution comes after local groups, such as Antiracism in Action (AIA), Black Community Watchline (BCW) and Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition (MBJC), urged the mayor and Borough Council members to show support for the bill moving forward in the state legislature.
Hamm marked 50 years of activism this year, commemorating the day he—then a senior and president of the student council—led a walkout of students at Arts High School in support of the now historic Newark Teachers’ Strike in 1971, but his journey appears to be far from over.