Montclair residents packed the Montclair Salvation Army church last night to attend Montclair Police Department’s July 18 forum to discuss law enforcement issues in light of the shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and attacks on the police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The meeting, which was supposed to last an hour and half, ran an hour over to accommodate the many concerns of Montclair residents. Though nothing comparable to the events in towns like Ferguson, Missouri or Falcon Heights, Minnesota have occurred in Montclair, new Chief of Police Todd Conforti said he wanted to make himself available and transparent to foster good relationships with the community. Joining him were several members of the police force, including Deputy Chiefs Tracy Frazzano and Wilhelm Young, as well as Essex County Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray.
Attorney Jim Johnson, who has collaborated with the Brennan Center for Social Justice, moderated the forum and underscored its importance by saying that the police wanted to hear people’s concerns, and he called on everyone to take a moment to breathe deeply and be silent before they began, which they did.
Many black residents in attendance were fearful for their children, and they asked what they should tell their children of driving age on how to react to a traffic stop. Chief Conforti said that that simplest thing a motorist should do when stopped by a police officer is to comply with an officer’s requests and demands and not provoke a confrontation. The safest course of action, he said, was to wait patiently and allow the officer to go through the standard procedure, which involves handing over one’s license, registration, and insurance card when asked and to wait patiently for the officer to explain the reason for the stop. Sergeant Tyrone Williams said that the best way to deal with policemen who act unprofessionally was to “comply and complain later” – comply with the officer, then file a complaint with the police department or the county prosecutor’s office.
A black minister said that he feared that if he asks his child to comply with the law, he could still end up dead. “And if my child does not comply, does that mean that my child has a right to be dead because he didn’t comply?” he asked. “What are you talking about right now to try to avoid this from happening?”
Chief Conforti said the best answer he could give was that he would start a talk with the residents, continue the conversation, and try to move forward. “I’ve been the police chief for a few months now, and I don’t have all the answers. But I will say, I do take your concerns seriously.” He said that his department was committed to investigating officers who have issues, and that the county prosecutor’s office is there to provide an alternative avenue. The chief also cited continued training in dealing with residents and how to de-escalate potentially troublesome situations. He admitted that trust between the police and community would not happen overnight, but he said he was committed to working on it every day.
Murray praised the Montclair Police Department for its robust standards, and she said compliance was always the best recourse. She also said that her office takes racial bias seriously, and that such bias is becoming more implicit and subconscious, as racial attitudes have become more ingrained overtime, and that more vigilance was necessary to root out such biases. Some residents noted the many killings of black civilians as evidence that many police forces have been murdering black people; resident Adesia Palmer complained that guilty police officers have not been going to jail.
Murray tried to provide some answers. She said that if police officers fire their service revolvers in the course of their duties, it has to be looked into by the Internal Affairs office. ”We have to investigate closely, because many of those cases involved the commission of a carjacking or the commission of a serious crime,” she said, but not some of these things that we’re seeing in other parts of the country, and we simply cannot arrest an office without a full investigation.” Palmer asked how some cops could literally get away with murder despite video evidence; Murray believed that the use of video will enhance abilities to prosecute errant officers.
Resident Leslie K. Brown of the Police Committee and the Civil Rights Commission asked about monitoring police officers over their implicit bias, such as some Montclair officers who have posted anti-Black Lives matter material on social media. Chief Conforti said that social media incidents need to be reported to the police to allow them to handle it.
Feelings were raw among many residents, including a 35-year-old black man who said he felt fearful of the police and was worried he could end up dead if stopped. Resident Maatie Alcindor said that the police needed to do better in handling young black civilians, saying that her son was traumatized by being stopped by police while walking through his neighborhood after a shooting and searched without an explanation for the search. “That left my family very shook up,” she said. “My son was not happy with the message that was given to him.” She went to the Civil Rights Commission and got a complaint form, but he was reluctant to fill it out for fear of retribution from the authorities.
An 81-year-old black woman thanked Officer Ben Campos for his courtesy and professionalism after he stopped her at Chestnut Street for going through a red light; she thought she had the right to do so because no traffic could have been coming the other way due to the other way being closed off because of to construction. And resident Ben Ali gave Deputy Chief Young a black-belt medal to show his appreciation for keeping him “on the right path.” But there was a sense of urgency among members of the council who attended. Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo said that too many police officers and civilians were killing each other, and he decried the recent violence at public gatherings. Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said that guns had to be taken off the streets and called for more diversity in the force and in the input and feedback the police received.
There was general agreement in how to maintain and improve relationships between the police and the residents, such as continuing police involvement in neighborhood activities and community outreach programs such as “Coffee with a Cop,” where residents discuss their concerns with officers over coffee or some other beverage. Mayor Robert Jackson, for his part, took pride in the Montclair Police Department. “I do think that we have an unusual fervor . . . for trying to do things the right way, and we do make mistakes,” he said. “Our police officers are not perfect, and none of us are perfect either. But I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, and I feel this very strongly, that we have the finest police department in Essex County.”