Trust is the cornerstone of safe and effective law enforcement. In New Jersey and around the country, building trust among police and the communities they serve has always been a challenge, but after the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic and so many other violent police encounters, the relationship between police and our communities has eroded even further. This deadly and dangerous crisis of trust must be remedied.

Lawmakers hope to fix the problem through the passage of new laws. As of this writing, legislation aimed at preventing violent police encounters is being proposed here in New Jersey. For example, a bill that would eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement officers under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (A4578) has been proposed, as has a bill that would make police disciplinary records publicly accessible (A5301/S2656). 

While carefully crafted and balanced legislative reform can help, new laws alone are not the solution. We cannot legislate relationships. We cannot legislate trust. Relationships and trust must be built the old-fashioned way, in person, face to face with police engaging directly and constructively with our citizens, most urgently with our youngest civilians in communities of color. Our law enforcement leaders, our elected leaders and our community leaders need to prioritize sustained and systematic police-community engagement and they need to do so now as the pandemic subsides. 

I learned the importance of relationship building firsthand back in 2016, early in my tenure as the attorney general of New Jersey. A community leader in Elizabeth asked that I visit a local preschool. I was glad to accept his invitation to meet with the children. I went from class to class, talking with kids who were happy to meet the new attorney general. But there was one little girl who would not stop staring at her feet. When I approached her for a high five, she looked away. Finally, I asked her what was wrong. She begrudgingly looked up and said, “I don’t like cops.” That hit me in the gut and it served as a stark reminder for me that we had some serious work to do. 

And by then, at least in relative terms, New Jersey was ahead of the curve. Body cameras were being rolled out in several police departments around the state, we changed for the better how police-involved shootings were investigated, and for the first time, every police officer in the state was required to receive annual training on de-escalation, cultural awareness, mental health issues, implicit bias, and related topics. A program was created to help educate our communities about their rights and obligations when stopped by police — designed to avoid escalation and to save lives during traffic stops. And perhaps most importantly, there was an emphasis on community policing and the need for police officers and our children to get acquainted, not in the enforcement context, but in positive, friendly and relationship-building ways. 

My successor, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, our then top federal prosecutor United States Attorney Craig Carpenito and now Acting United States Attorney Rachael Honig, have devoted themselves to new and creative initiatives, many for the purpose of building trust between law enforcement and civilians. Their efforts, and the efforts of local leaders like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and recently retired Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, paid huge dividends when, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we saw peaceful protests in cities such as Newark, instead of the widespread violence and property damage suffered in places like New York City and elsewhere. 

Yet, as my young friend from Elizabeth reminded me, and recent events have reminded the nation, we still have a long way to go. Building relationships takes hard work and commitment. And it does not happen overnight. Trust is built through the devotion of community and law enforcement leaders, who must continue to work together to set an example for their constituents. Cops in churches on Sunday, on athletic fields with students, in the preschools, in ice cream trucks and at pizza parties. Police who grew up in or live in the communities where they work, and who are trained to smile at civilians and to deescalate heated encounters by taking a step back when they can. 

These are the efforts that will, over time, help solve this very serious crisis. But relationship building, particularly across thousands of police officers and millions of residents, requires commitment and engagement — one police officer at a time, one civilian at a time, one day at a time — over and over for years and years, and not only in the wake of tragedy. So let’s acknowledge this reality, stop pretending there is a quick legislative or other fix and get back to the hard but critically important work of building trust.

Reprinted with permission from the May 23, 2021, issue of © 2021 Advance Local Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. 

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