What Gurbir Grewal Learned as the Nation’s First Sikh Attorney General

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New Jersey’s former attorney general is leaving one of the most powerful law enforcement roles in the country to play a key role at the S.E.C.

Gurbir S. Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney general for more than three years, is expected to start Monday as the director of the enforcement division at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Credit...Joe Lamberti/Camden Courier-Post, via Associated Press

Tracey Tully

July 23, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Gurbir S. Grewal did not seek out the powerful role at the Securities and Exchange Commission that he is planning to start on Monday.

Officials at the S.E.C. approached Mr. Grewal, New Jersey’s longest-serving attorney general in decades, to run a key enforcement division for the nation’s top securities regulator after its former director resigned days after taking the job.

Born to Indian immigrants in Jersey City, N.J., Mr. Grewal will remain rooted in the Garden State, commuting between Washington and Bergen County, where his wife, a doctor, and their three daughters will continue to live.

Last Friday, he posted an emotional, 10-minute video farewell that touched on what he saw as notable victories even as he sounded a familiar theme: the need to restore and enhance trust in government and in the criminal justice system, particularly among communities of color.

“Justice is simply not about numbers of arrests or convictions,” he said in the video. “Justice is also about the cases we don’t make, the individuals we keep out of the criminal justice system.”

In the three and a half years since he was named attorney general by Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, he joined dozens of multistate lawsuits against the Trump administration. The cases helped to create a bulwark against efforts to remove some families from stamps and exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count.

Mr. Grewal, 48, is not without critics. Some defense lawyers and advocates of criminal justice reform have panned his policies as well-intentioned but timid. He has also faced questions about whether a public corruption investigation that led to the arrests of low-level political operatives enabled the state’s primary informant to rake in millions in government contracts, as documented by a recent nj.com article.

He is the first to say much work remains.

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Credit...Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

“There’s so much here that’s left unfinished,” he said in an interview on his last day as one of the most powerful attorneys general in the country, who oversees all policing departments and each of the state’s 21 county prosecutors.

But he said he also believed that he had shifted the priorities of an office that is, for now, in the hands of a trusted top deputy, Andrew Bruck.

In December, Mr. Grewal’s office rewrote the rules governing the use of force by the state’s 38,000 police officers and required them to intervene if they saw a colleague using illegal or excessive force. The policy, which takes effect next year, limits when the police can strike, chase or shoot civilians or use canines.

In the meantime, all officers are expected to undergo training in de-escalation tactics and bystander intervention.

“So we’re producing guardians, not warriors,” Mr. Grewal said.

The changes were accompanied by the publication of a website that allows users to search and track incidents in which a New Jersey police officer reports using physical force. Earlier this month, Mr. Grewal also released more than 10 years of data involving motor vehicle stops by State Police troopers, including the race or ethnicity of the drivers pulled over or charged.

Last month, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police departments are required, as directed by Mr. Grewal, to release a list of officers who have been subject to “major discipline” that led to a suspension of five or more days.

A bill pending in the Legislature would require the release of far more still-secret police disciplinary records, much like the repeal of a section of New York’s civil rights law did in New York City.

“States are laboratories for democracy,” Mr. Grewal said, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. “If there’s going to be meaningful change on policing, it will come here.”

In his first year in office, Mr. Grewal ordered police officers in local, county and state agencies to limit the voluntary assistance they offered federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who during the Trump administration had stepped up arrests.

Known as the “Immigrant Trust Directive,” it blocks law enforcement officers from asking people about their immigration status, or from helping ICE agents as they make detention arrests. It permits officers to turn over undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes to ICE agents, but only if those agents pick up the migrants on the day of their release from jail.

The goal, Mr. Grewal has said, is to eliminate the fear of coming forward for people who are not in the country legally and may be victims or witnesses to crimes.

The directive won key backing from police leaders, but it also prompted lawsuits by several Republican-led counties and a nonbinding ballot referendum in Sussex County, where voters overwhelmingly gave the policy a symbolic thumbs down.

Mr. Grewal also frequently highlighted upticks in bias crimes and hate speech.

He has spoken forcefully about understanding the sting of racism as the first Sikh in the country to become a statewide attorney general.

In May 2018 he described getting death threats and being called “towel head,” “rag head” and “terrorist.” Months later a New Jersey radio host referred to him as “turban man.”

“It’s not easy when everything is hyper-personalized, and you’re targeted because of your religious identity and your appearance,” he said last week.

Before becoming Bergen County’s prosecutor in 2016, he worked in private practice and investigated white-collar crimes as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York and New Jersey.

“Maybe, maybe it makes it easier for a kid who looks like me,” Mr. Grewal said of his visibility in high-profile roles.

In 2018, Mr. Murphy assembled a bipartisan commission that worked for 18 months to reach consensus on a landmark criminal justice initiative that would have ended long, mandatory sentences for most nonviolent drug and property crimes.

Then bare-knuckle New Jersey politics derailed the bill that would have led to the sentencing overhaul. Mr. Murphy has twice vetoed amended legislation, adjusted at the behest of a well-connected Democratic state senator, who wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for corrupt public officials as well.

In April, lawyers in Mr. Grewal’s office devised an alternative solution, drafting a directive that accomplished much of what the legislation had intended. Nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to long prison terms as part of the war on drugs were given a way to end or shorten their incarceration.

The resentencing process has been cumbersome. And people serving time for other nonviolent crimes covered by the original bill are not eligible for release.

But it was hailed as an elegant if imperfect solution that underscored the power of New Jersey’s attorney general, who oversees 750 lawyers, several hundred fewer than the S.E.C.’s enforcement division.

Mr. Grewal can barely hide his frustration with the politics that muddied the effort of a commission that was made up of prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and former police and prison officials.

It has kept people imprisoned years longer than necessary, he said. “People who are suffering right now.”

Mr. Murphy has signed bills that banned so-called ghost guns that can be assembled with untraceable materials and encouraged the sale of weapons that can be fired only by the registered owner.

Mr. Grewal has also ordered all state and local law-enforcement agencies to share information about people who sell and buy guns used in crimes and blocked companies from marketing or shipping ghost guns to New Jersey residents.

The efforts have led the Giffords Law Center to rank New Jersey No. 2, behind California, for the strength of its gun laws.

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Credit...Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

A lawsuit filed by the attorney general’s office over how the weapons manufacturer Smith & Wesson advertises is seen as the country’s most consequential legal battle over the future of gun control.

The attorney general’s office has issued a subpoena for internal Smith & Wesson documents, which, if obtained, could expose the inner workings of an industry that is typically shielded from revealing its secrets by federal laws that make it immune from liability for gun crimes and deaths.

Still, Mr. Grewal said he considered a community walk he took last week through Atlantic City a similarly potent way to reduce gun violence, by eliminating barriers that can separate the police from residents.

“That’s the model that works,” he added. “We overcomplicate public safety. It’s about trust.”

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