MORRIS COUNTY — Just five months ago, a policy put in place is being thrown into reverse.
At the beginning of the year, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General (NJOAG) updated guidelines on the state’s use-of-force policy that went into effect, which did not allow police pursuits over car thefts. It was only allowed if chase vehicles were involved in more serious crimes or to prevent imminent death.
Months later, after listening to various township leaders, Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin has reversed that decision, allowing police officers across the state to now pursue car thieves. Under former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, police were restricted from conducting pursuits as part of his reform package of use-of-force policies following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
The reasoning behind the change, Platkin says, is the sharp rise in car thefts across the state. In his announcement of the reversal of the policy at a news conference in Marlboro, Platkin said that car thefts in NJ this year were 37% higher than they were last year and 53% higher compared to 2020.
“They’re increasingly linked to other crimes,” he explained. “These changes will give law enforcement the tools they need to meet the moment and protect our communities while also being mindful of the inherent risks that come to officer safety and the public when officers do engage in these pursuits.”
According to the office of the NJAOG, more than 10% of police pursuits end in injuries or fatalities. But, it also says a significant percentage of individuals who commit auto theft offenses have also been involved in shootings. State Police say there were 14,000 vehicle thefts last year, and this year is on pace to be at least 50% greater than thefts in 2020. Nearly 99% of the car thefts, police say, are because owners are leaving their keys in the car.
Platkin’s reversal comes as New Jersey invests $10 million from the American Rescue Plan in more license plate readers to help combat car thefts. Several New Jersey towns already have had the technology in place. Additionally, $125,000 of federal money will go towards adding more detectives, prosecutors, and police departments to the auto theft task force.
Senator Joe Lagana (D – District 38) and Senator Paul Sarlo (D – District 36) support the change.
“We applaud Attorney General Platkin for recognizing recent crime trends across New Jersey, and for issuing his directive to law enforcement at all levels that will allow them to conduct practical, safe, effective pursuits of criminals who are stealing vehicles out of Bergen County and every other county in the State,” Lagana and Sarlo said in a statement.
“These changes, which we called for in a letter to the attorney general on March 24 after receiving numerous complaints from law enforcement that the December 2020 directive concerning pursuits, though well-intended, had effectively tied officers’ hands in allowing them to properly do their jobs,” their statement continued. “This revision of that policy is a timely change, and will be welcome to those in the rank-and-file who serve and protect our communities.”
A group of lawmakers from across the state came together in Monmouth County this week calling for stiffer penalties in car theft cases, saying that the current catch-and-release policy isn’t working.
“Our judiciary cannot continue to act like a Michelin Star Restaurant offering topnotch service to criminals who are committing these crimes,” Middletown Mayor Tony Perry said. “We cannot continue to sit here and defend criminals for criminal acts.”
The change in car pursuit policy is not permanent. Platkin said that it would be in place until, at least, the end of 2022, when the NJOAG will review the policy again.