It’s been more than a quarter of a century since a New Jersey attorney general stayed that long.
Gurbir Grewal has been the state’s top law enforcement officer for three years since Saturday. He was the first to reach this mark since the early 1990s.
His historic appointment – he is the country’s first Sikh attorney general – has been followed by one of the toughest law enforcement periods in modern history, marked by nationwide protests, a global pandemic, and a mob attack by the country’s chief in chief.
Amid the crisis, Grewal’s office revised the rules for the use of force by the police for the first time in a generation, suing the federal government more in three years than it had in New Jersey in the past four decades, while a series of investigations continued and prosecuted Crime.
“Over the past three years, the destructiveness of the federal government has left enormous gaps in policing, civil rights and the environment,” Grewal told NJ Advance Media. “We have filled these gaps.”
His tenure has brought criticism.
Gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson Brands Inc. accused Grewal of “following in the footsteps of” repressive regimes “after Grewal’s office asked the company to share internal documents.
Federal immigration officials have blown state regulations restricting when local police officers can surrender undocumented immigrants, saying they threaten “the safety of the people that the New Jersey attorney general is supposed to protect”.
President Donald Trump’s transition team once said Grewal’s office only sued them for media attention.
Although there are disagreements over certain policies, many heads of state said Grewal still included them in the decision-making process after more than a dozen interviews with civil rights attorneys, law enforcement officers, legal experts, and current and former state employees.
“We are adversaries” who can still work together, said Joseph Krakora, the state’s chief defense attorney, who is currently fighting Grewal’s office in court to get more people out of prison.
“During the Christie administration, we had a new club roughly every 15 minutes,” said Pat Colligan, president of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association. (Five attorneys-general served during former Governor Chris Christie’s eight years.)
Consistent leadership has made it easier to get things done, Colligan said. “Up until the recent lawsuit, we’ve gone into virtually every new policy.”
The “recent lawsuit” relates to the ongoing dispute over whether Grewal has the power to appoint disciplined police officers, information long hidden in New Jersey.
It’s also an example of Grewal changing his mind.
Grewal had long supported keeping internal police records private. That changed after George Floyd’s death in May.
“He called and said,” I was wrong, “said Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor and founding director of the nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice.” I found that refreshing. “
Grewal said months of listening to community members turned him around.
“If one thing became more crystallized for me after the death of George Floyd, it really is the fact that we have to acknowledge that systemic racism exists,” he said. “It exists in law enforcement, it exists in criminal justice.”
Some police officers and prosecutors said they wanted more input on this change, and felt it was largely an attempt to make headlines.
Police unions sued to prevent names from being published, and union officials have also protested other police decisions, including initiating an investigation into whether state police discriminate in recruitment and promotion.
Grewals “is constantly trying to tweak us as if something is wrong,” said Pete Stilianessis, director of the State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association.
On the other hand, many civil rights activists believe that his reforms haven’t gone far enough.
“The attorney general is talking about transparency and the importance of maintaining it,” said CJ Griffin, a well-known public records attorney. “But then they don’t really offer that transparency.”
New Jersey is one of 20 states where home affairs records are private, and Grewal’s plan would still keep many misconduct investigations away from sight.
At the very least, Grewal should lobby for laws to open those files, Griffin said.
Grewal defended his decisions.
He has always found ways to listen and compromise, he said, and the new police rules are another good example.
“While this policy did not reflect what each group wanted, it did reflect the best policy we could develop together,” said Grewal.
He has also resisted calls to “defuse the police”, arguing that more spending is needed to improve training.
Grewal’s office is one of the most powerful in the country.
No other attorney general can unilaterally issue orders that apply to police officers and prosecutors nationwide, according to Paul Nolette, an expert on the political power of attorneys-general and chairman of Marquette’s political science department.
Grewal has used this power to limit when prosecutors rely on informants in prison and to limit when teenagers can be locked up. His office expanded opioid treatment, sued a bevy of suspected polluters, called for bias education to be expanded in the classroom, and formed a public corruption team that has made multiple arrests.
“I can get the loan, but the hard work is done by the 8,000 or so people who work in the department,” he said.
Lawmakers also passed a law to force his office to investigate every time someone dies in police custody. Another change he originally opposed but now supports.
Grewal has also worked more publicly than some of his predecessors.
He speaks frequently in schools and community meetings. He has appeared on CNN, featured on The Atlantic and co-wrote a feature for the New York Times.
“He’s certainly changed the way we think about an AG,” said Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University.
Grewal’s visibility was important to Sikh Americans, said Satjeet Kaur, head of the national civil rights organization Sikh Coalition.
A few years ago, Kaur walked into a government building in Trenton and saw Grewal’s framed portrait on the wall.
“It took me a minute to process,” she said. “I grew up in New Jersey and it’s not every day that you ever see a Sikh on TV or in a government building or talk about it in the newspapers.”
Grewal’s religion has generated a fair share of racism, including a radio host who said Grewal’s turban prevented him from remembering Grewal’s name.
Grewal’s parents are from India, and he has often said that he became a partial prosecutor to be a “visible minority”.
“I remember sitting in those high schools knowing what it was like to look different and maybe be teased,” he said. “Maybe having a kid from the same background as me made me a little taller when I talked about the opioid epidemic.”
Several respondents also noted that Governor Phil Murphy found it easier to share the limelight than previous governors. (See: Christie, Chris.)
Murphy praised Grewal in a statement, saying he was “a driving force behind legal and political consequences that have made our state safer, stronger and more just”.
“I am proud of his accomplishments on this critical post,” said Murphy.
In the unlikely event their relationship worsened, it is unclear whether Grewal could be fired.
“There’s no straight answer to that,” said Robert Williams, professor emeritus at the Rutgers Law School in Camden and an expert on state constitutional law.
The New Jersey constitution states that the attorney general will not “serve the governor for pleasure,” which suggests he is protected.
However, another section states that the governor can open an investigation into “any officer or employee receiving compensation from the state of New Jersey,” and after a public hearing, the governor “can remove such officer or employee for cause.” .
Williams said he didn’t know this was happening to an attorney general.
It looks like Grewal’s term ends with Murphy’s early next year.
Until then he has a lot on his plate.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice wants him to move more detained teenagers to residential centers. Grewal said he agreed that the state should continue to downsize juvenile prisons.
Environmentalists are pushing him to sue large oil companies. Grewal said they are considering more litigation related to climate change.
And with Trump’s administration rushing to finalize some federal regulations in less than a week, Grewal has filed at least four new lawsuits against the federal government since the New Year, bringing the total to at least 77.
Some of these complaints were a “stupid waste of resources,” said Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “I disagree with him on some of his left-wing policies.”
At the same time, Grewals is “not a blind ideologist,” said O’Scanlon. “He’s someone to work with.”
Elie Honig, a former criminal justice chief, has been impressed with the past three years.
“It’s almost impossible to do the AG’s job perfectly – there are just too many competing constituencies and interests – but Gurbir has come damn close,” he said.
Grewal said he plans to at least end his term, but he would like to be re-nominated for another four years if Murphy is re-elected.
“I think that’s the best job and if he thinks I’m doing a good job I would like to keep going,” said Grewal. “I regret nothing.”
Grewal is 47 and a Democrat, and his name is often mentioned as a contender for major appearances.
Grewal said his head isn’t there.
“As soon as you start thinking about your next opportunity, you lose focus on the work that lies ahead,” he said.
NJ Advance Media’s writers SP Sullivan and Alex Napoliello contributed to this report.
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