Acting AG: ‘When rights are under attack, everybody should feel afraid’
(ERIN ROLL/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
“Abortions are not going to stop happening because of what the Supreme Court says about Roe,” acting state Attorney General Matthew Platkin said to an audience at Temple Ner Tamid earlier this month. “They’re just going to become less safe for women,” he added, to applause from the audience.
Platkin had been invited to speak at “After Roe?” a discussion of what it would mean for New Jersey and the country if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade.
The May 12 talk was co-sponsored by Temple Ner Tamid, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Montclair chapter of the NAACP. The talk was moderated by Amy Winkelman, a former assistant U.S. attorney, current associate general counsel for Moody’s Investors Service and Ner Tamid’s vice president of Tikkun Olam.
Platkin, a Montclair resident and a Ner Tamid member, was named acting attorney general on Feb. 3 and officially started in that role on Feb. 14.
The discussion was originally supposed to focus on a wide range of topics on civil rights and criminal justice in New Jersey, Rabbi Marc Katz said. But after a draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked on May 2, the talk was changed to put the topic of reproductive rights, and the prospect of a world without Roe v. Wade, at the center of discussion.
Katz said that the community really needed to hear some reassurance that the state was doing what it could to preserve reproductive rights.
About 60 people attended the talk in person, and at least another 60 were listening virtually.
The draft opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, argues that the right to abortion is not constitutionally protected.
The news set off outrage and protests across the country. In Montclair, Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan New Jersey hosted a rally in front of its offices on North Fullerton Avenue on May 3.
Platkin said that there has been an ongoing effort over the last 50 years to overturn Roe v. Wade. “But the decision is still striking in terms of how broadly it was written, and how far it’s willing to go in terms of Roe,” he said.
The good news, however, is that New Jersey has been working to make sure reproductive rights are enshrined in state law, he said.
“Just because something isn’t constitutional at the federal level, it doesn’t mean it’s not constitutionally protected under state law,” he said.
In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act into law. The law would allow people to continue to have access to legal abortions in New Jersey, even if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“In New Jersey, we trust each individual person to make their reproductive choices for themselves,” Murphy said in an announcement on Jan. 13. “With Roe v. Wade under attack, today’s historic legislation makes clear that New Jersey’s position in supporting the right to reproductive choice remains protected. Together, with expanding contraception coverage, these two pieces of legislation serve to meaningfully and tangibly increase access to reproductive health care, and ensure that New Jersey residents are now, and will remain, in control of their reproductive choices.”
Mental health screeners
The talk also addressed topics such as protections for voting rights, recent rises in bias crimes and hate speech, efforts to combat illegal gun sales and imports, and the need for accountability by law enforcement.
One topic that was particularly of interest to the audience was an ongoing pilot program in Cumberland County in which a mental health screener is dispatched along with a plainclothes police officer in situations in which someone is having a mental health crisis.
If the person does not feel comfortable speaking with the police officer present, the officer will step just out of sight while the person speaks to the mental health screener, but will be nearby in case help is needed, Platkin said. He noted that law enforcement officers and screeners both receive extensive training, and that 911 dispatchers are receiving training as well to recognize when someone is in crisis.
Platkin said that the state hopes to expand the pilot program into New Jersey’s cities, and then to the rest of the state.
Since 2019, every police-related death in New Jersey — such as during a police pursuit or arrest, or if someone dies in police custody — must now be investigated by the attorney general’s office.
Earlier in May, two people were killed when a car crashed in Glen Ridge during a police pursuit. The SUV veered off of Bloomfield Avenue and crashed in the glen near Toney’s Brook. That investigation is now being conducted by the attorney general’s office.
There were 1,871 bias crimes reported in New Jersey in 2021, the highest number recorded since the state began tracking that data in 1994, Platkin said. The increases in incidents were up across the board, he said. As an example, he said bias incidents against transgender people went up 170%.
“What we’re seeing is a snapshot of what’s going on, because not every incident gets reported,” he said. However, the increase in cases may be due in part to people feeling more confident about reporting bias incidents to authorities.
Social media platforms have been used for hate speech, and the platforms have not been doing a good job of policing such speech, he said.
“Look at what’s being said. Look at what’s been said about the 2020 election. Look at the post-George Floyd rhetoric. Look at what’s been said about Asian Americans in relation to the coronavirus,” Platkin said.
There has also been training for law enforcement officers on recognizing and de-escalating implicit bias within their ranks.
The New Jersey state police are required to keep records showing the diversity of officers, and to recruit among all communities. If a division’s recruitment is not reflective of the state’s diversity, Platkin said that division has to present a corrective action plan.
“At the end of the day, if people don’t have trust in law enforcement, they’re not going to act as partners,” Platkin said, citing coming forward as witnesses in an investigation.
At the end of the talk, he said: “When rights are under attack, everybody should feel afraid. Everybody should feel vigilant, vulnerable.”
Cary Chevat, of the Montclair NAACP, said it was very reassuring to hear Platkin say that the attorney general’s office was working to protect reproductive rights.
He said that low voter turnout in recent elections was a major contributor to the current political climate: “That’s when you get a Donald Trump.
He noted that voter turnout in Montclair for the 2021 governor’s election had been only 40%.