Last week, when New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy announced a $9 million expansion of the state police, social justice activists who marched in the streets in 2020 to push for reallocating police funds were left with one question: Why?
“I’m baffled,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, policy director at the New Jersey nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice.
“We saw that in the midst of the protests of 2020, you had elected officials standing with advocates, declaring that they understand there's an issue and something must be done,” she continued. “And this insistence to put more police on the streets seems to really be a disconnect between what was said then and what we're seeing now.”
Activists say they mistakenly thought Democrats were convinced that a police-centered approach to public safety doesn’t work.
For the past two years, we've had an acknowledgment from these very same politicians saying that we can't arrest our way out of societal problems. But it seems like hiring police officers are the only solution that politicians are committed to.
“For the past two years, we've had an acknowledgment from these very same politicians saying that we can't arrest our way out of societal problems,” said Zellie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter organizer from Paterson. “But it seems like hiring police officers are the only solution that politicians are committed to.”
Roots of violence
Thomas wants state government funding to address root causes of violence -- like housing, harm reduction programs for drug users, and mental health resources -- “not just the solutions that make us feel safer, but solutions that actually make us safe.”
The additional money for the state police will pay for a second class of troopers in the coming fiscal year -- normally, just one class is convened annually. At a press conference with Democratic legislators, Murphy said that this will increase the number of troopers from 3,020 to more than 3,100, in order “to meet the demands […] necessitated by our COVID response and the increased need for law enforcement stemming from the pandemic.”
“One of my most sacred responsibilities as governor is insuring the safety and security of the residents of our state,” Murphy said. “This means the funding required for a diverse, well-trained and properly funded law enforcement that is fully acceptable of meeting the challenges we face today.”
The $9 million comes from two funding streams: $5 million from the upcoming fiscal year’s state budget and $4 million from the $6.2 billion that the state received through the federal COVID-relief American Rescue Plan.
In his announcement, Murphy spent several minutes listing the various duties of the state police. He referenced troopers’ roles in policing 16% of state municipalities that don’t have their own departments and partnering with other agencies on anti-gun operations. He also cited their role in disaster response, combating the opioid epidemic, regulating firearms, and the procurement of personal protective equipment to safeguard against COVID.
Murphy said the state police is nationally respected, and other governors praise them when he travels out of state.
A 'growth class'
New Jersey State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan called this second cohort of new troopers a “growth class” -- meaning the numbers will outpace attrition -- which he described as an extraordinary commitment. He highlighted how during COVID, troopers built testing and vaccine sites and delivered ventilators to hospitals.
But for some Black New Jerseyans, there’s lingering distrust for police and state troopers, based on personal experience and news stories. Until 2009, the state police was under a federal consent decree over allegations that it engaged in racial profiling in motor vehicle stops. And two days before the killing of George Floyd set off nationwide protests, a trooper shot and killed an unarmed 28-year-old man suffering from mental illness on the Garden State Parkway.
“Any situation where you are advocating to put more police in situations where there's already a lack of trust, a lack of transparency between the agencies and the communities that they are charged with protecting and serving, I think that again is a missed opportunity and misguided,” Romans-Henry said.
Murphy says one of his objectives in increasing funding for state troopers is to make the force more diverse. A spokesperson for the governor, Alyana Alfaro, said in an email the state police “recently prioritized diverse recruiting, an effort they will continue for the newly announced additional class of New Jersey State Police Troopers.” She said that new troopers are needed because COVID led to more mental health challenges and increased gun violence, contributing to a national trend.
Alfaro listed the non-policing approaches that the Murphy Administration has taken to public safety: Signing a bill to create reentry services for those released from juvenile facilities; starting a pilot program to pair mental health professionals with state troopers on behavioral health 911 calls; and regulating the use of no-knock warrants.
At Murphy’s announcement, Democratic Assemblyman Bill Spearman of Camden said state police troopers, working with city and federal agencies, “took our streets back from the drug dealers […] you made my streets safe again.”
And last month, the state police’s crime suppression central unit – charged with investigating drug activity – made a bust in South Jersey that netted 1,000 fentanyl pills, 7 pounds of crystal meth and firearms.
The state police have also been confiscating more guns -- 488 last year, compared to 298 in 2019. In all, law enforcement agencies in the state collected more than 4,000 guns last year, according to state trooper data.
New Jersey Democrats’ embrace of additional police reflects a national shift in the pendulum away from the idea of defunding departments. New York City Mayor Eric Adams ran and won on a law-and-order platform while President Joe Biden used his State of the Union speech to reject the “defund the police” movement.
Other top priorities of New Jersey police reformers in the wake of the 2020 protests -- like creating civilian review boards to oversee police misconduct -- have died in the legislature.
While the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has long argued that more cops keeps streets safer, racial justice leaders say that’s a fallacy -- they don’t make a dent in the flow of guns, the number of opioid deaths, or incidents of domestic violence.
“Police do not stop crime,” said Romans-Henry, from Salvation and Social Justice. “They respond to crime.”
And the state is not without officers -- there are hundreds of local and county law enforcement agencies in the state. New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank, found that there are twice as many police and correctional officers in the state than there are drug, behavioral and mental health counselors combined.
“There's a lot of research that shows that investing in things like healthcare, neighborhood restoration, quality early childhood education, community centers and nonprofits and community-based violence interruption programs reduces crime and promotes public safety as much if not more than increased numbers of police,” said Marleina Ubel, policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective.
Unlike the added money for police, funding for violence interrupters -- which work with the most at-risk communities to quash beefs and prevent gunfire -- is flat in this year’s proposed budget, at $10 million. A spokesperson for the governor said Murphy is open to finding more funds in the budget negotiation process.