Montclair NAACP held a virtual meeting Tuesday with Montclair Police leadership. The program,
called Montclair Together and co-sponsored by BlueWaveNJ, drew more than 400 participants on Zoom, but Montclair’s NAACP Youth Council boycotted the event.
The program featured Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti and Deputy Chief Wil Young, Lieutenant Tyrone Williams, Jr. (oversees community policing) and Captain David O’Dowd (who handles internal affairs) at police headwquarters, as well as Theodore Stevens, Acting Essex County Prosecutor, attending remotely. The panelists discussed policies and procedures with regard to use of force training that takes place every six months and the vetting that goes into hiring of police officers. The need for funds to pay for body-worn cameras was also discussed.
But it was a flag, mounted on the wall of an otherwise bare conference room at Montclair Police headquarters, that became the focal point of the discussion for the residents participating from home.
Almost immediately, viewers noticed the flag and voiced their anger in the chat portion of the meeting, asking why a flag that has been associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, was hanging on the wall behind the Montclair Police leadership team.
Some 43 minutes into the meeting, the panel addressed the issue after Councilor At Large elect Peter Yacobellis unmuted his microphone to share the flag was a “hot button issue in the chat room” and could Conforti turn it over to Lt. Williams to address the flag on the wall in the room.
Williams said the flag was not about Blue Lives Matter.
“The thin blue line has been a symbol of our brotherhood and camaraderie for 21 years of my career,” Williams said. “This flag has gotten attributed to the Blue Lives Matter movement, however the thin blue line is what the symbolism of brotherhood in law enforcement is and that’s the reason that this flag is here.”
A thin blue line flag, which features a thin blue stripe in place of one of the flag’s 13 red stripes, has been a way to show support for law enforcement, but the image of the flag has also become associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement and has been adopted by white nationalists as a rejection of Black Lives Matter.
The display of a Thin Blue Line flag has caused controversy in other towns. Montgomery County in Maryland barred police from hanging a thin blue line flag in any public space. In this instance, a resident had given the flag to the police department.
Later, with 10 minutes left on the call, Marcia Marley of BlueWave NJ raised the question again, citing how the chat room continued to be overwhelmed with the discussion of flag. One participant could be seen on the call holding up a sign with the words “Take Down The Flag.”
“I understand that there is this camaraderie within in the police department, but some people feel that’s the problem. Given the the amount of concern about the flag, maybe we should talk about culture between the police department and the community,” Marley said.
Deputy Chief Wil Young responded to Marley’s question.
“I’m going to put it in layman’s terms,” Young said. “We just did this conference room. There’s an officer who does woodwork. He made that flag and gave it to us and we put it in the conference room. This is not a symbol of racists – this a symbol that is the brotherhood of all of us who have taken an oath to do this job the way it’s supposed to be done. There are segments of society that may have made that a symbol of racism, but that’s not what this is.”
“Many of you on this call know me, many of you know Lt. Williams. And quite honestly, I take offense to the fact that you would think we would support something racist in our police department. We have given 28 plus years of our lives to this police department and this township in more ways than just the police department. Please understand we have to move forward from this. It’s very obvious we are going to do whatever we have to do as a unit to make our relationship with the community better than where we are today. We feel like we have made strides from where we started to today and we want to get better going forward. We have to open our minds to the differences that people may have. I look at that flag and I see nothing any different than my wife’s flag for her fraternity, my flag from my time in the Air Force, chief’s flag from his college. There are many symbols out there, you can’t just immediately go to ‘that’s racist.’ We have to open our minds and respect each other’s differences — that’s part of the issue. I hope I didn’t offend anyone, and I apologize if I did, but that’s how I feel genuinely,” Young said.
Marley asked if a task force for best practices between the community and police department could be put together.
Chief Conforti replied that the police recently achieved state accreditation, which is nationally accepted standards in policing. He said the accreditation is difficult to attain and that not every town in New Jersey is accredited.
“I’ll work with anyone, I have no problem working, adopting, changing, but we are still working to meet the standards every year to get reaccredited,” Conforti added, recommending that people start by looking at the policies already in place.
Stephens added that there is also Excellence in Policing Initiative that deals with professionalism, transparency and accountability, adding that all police departments in Essex County are bound by it. It is posted on the NJ attorney general’s website.
Pelham thanked everyone for participating.
“As I’m looking at the chat room, we have a lot of have work to do. The purpose of today was to start a dialogue and when I look at the chat room, I see a lot of energy, some anger. If people are really committed to want to make change, then the next step is we all have work to do,” Pelham said, adding that there would be a next step, possibly including break-out sessions to focus on specific issues.