ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office held an informational town hall meeting Wednesday night in Newark to discuss police use of force, after demands from local organizers to address systemic issues in police tactics and training.
According to The Force Report, a black person in New Jersey is 224% more likely to have force used on them than a white person based on population. Based on arrests, a black person is in New Jersey is 38% more likely to have force used on them than a white person.
The issues addressed in the nearly two-hour long meeting were New Jersey’s existing Use of Force Policy and its implementation in Essex County. Representatives from the prosecutor’s office and the New Jersey State Police discussed concerns and goals for police reform in the near future.
The announcement of the town hall last Saturday came as protests over police violence towards black people have swept the nation, part of the growing Black Lives Matter movement which has expanded since the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th.
There have been numerous protests and marches in Essex County for police reform, drawing thousands of New Jerseyans to the streets. While these protests have been powerful, organizers have expressed the need for substantive legislative change as the public continues to oppose current police tactics.
Groups such as Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing, the For The Peoples Foundation and BlueWaveNJ have demanded accountability and transparency from Essex County officials in reforms to police procedures. Some of these proposed reforms include implementing a civilian review board, mandatory use of body cameras and increased police de-escalation programs.
These demands were addressed at the Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark’s West Ward. In-person attendees had their temperatures scanned, were seated 6-feet apart and were required to wear a face mask per Essex County COVID-19 policies.
For virtual attendees, the town hall was live-streamed on the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office’s Facebook page. Large portions of the town hall were nearly impossible to hear on the live-stream, due to technical difficulties, but viewers were able to post questions in the live stream’s comment section, which were then posed to the speakers in real-time.
The town hall was sparsely attended in person, but as of July 16th, the live-stream has almost 4,000 views on Facebook. The event started with remarks from Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II, who addressed the significant concerns regarding police conduct within communities.
“It’s hard [for the community] to trust when all you have from the past is evidence as to why you should not trust someone,” said Stephens. “Americans do not have a high level of trust for the justice system. The whole justice system really depends on trust. If trust is not there, then we have real difficulty.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the first Sikh American to be named an attorney general in the United States, recently announced his plans to revise the existing Use of Force policy for the first time in two decades. Grewal joined the town hall via live video with plans to speak, but eventually left the meeting without talking due to scheduling conflict.
Mitchell Maguire, the Acting Chief of Detectives at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, emphasized that current use of force guidelines determine not only when to use force, but when to avoid it.
”Use of force is a tiny part of what a law enforcement officer does,” explained Maguire. “This type of reform is welcomed by all of law enforcement, as well as the community. We need it.”
“It’s about an evolution of a profession that’s well over 100 years old,” added Maguire. “What a police officer was 100 years ago is not what they were 50 years ago, or 20 years ago. In recent light, with the pandemic and the protests, they are not what it was three months ago.”
Maguire also highlighted the need for increased training and education of officers, especially tenured officers and those policing communities that they do not live in.
He further declared that the selection process for new officers would need reforming, as the requirements to serve the community has changed. Maguire noted that community and cultural understanding should be an integral part of all new officer’s curriculum.
“Understanding the differences you may see in the culture you live in versus the community you serve,” explained Maguire. “… it’s not us versus them.”
Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor Alex Albu described current initiatives in New Jersey to curb police brutalities, such as proactive background checks and new training methods, including rigorous, scenario-based training methods for officers to better deal with use of force incidents. According to Albu, crisis-intervention training and implicit bias training decrease use of force incidents.
“Currently, officers go through a defensive tactics training course in the police academy, where they get about 40 hours of hands-on training, potentially followed by a 30-year career after,” explained Albu. “Is 40 hours enough for 30 years? The Attorney General doesn’t think so, and we don’t think so.”
Albu outlined a revamping of internal guidelines, including more robust background checks to prevent “bad apple” officers from a department from joining another department without knowledge of their history. Using data to spot trends in police behavior and create an early warning system to address problematic officers, use of force incidents could be prevented before they ever happen.
“Rather than simply prosecuting after the fact when there is an excessive force case that rises to the level of criminality, let’s try to avoid these issues from arising in the first place, to protect civilians,” said Albu. “We should be training officers and protecting them by giving them the tools to avoid being put in a position where poor decisions are made.”
But if deadly force is used, Albu explained that the County Prosecutor’s Office would investigate the incident rather than the municipality, in order to increase “confidence and independence” in the investigation.
He also described an Essex County program where staff is on call 24/7 to receive and review civilian complaints regarding pursuit and use of force incidents.
Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Noble of the New Jersey State Police Command Staff, a 25-year veteran of the force, spoke about learning from past instances of force to try to avoid more of them in the future.
“We come to these meetings to listen with our ears open because we have to do this together,” explained Lt. Colonel Noble. “Improving police accountability, police reform, police policies, training and procedures has to be a dialogue that we have together. The police have to be listening.”
Stephens, the Essex County Prosecutor, announced his office’s intention to require all officers in Essex County to wear body cameras within the next year. He explained that these cameras would help build trust between the police and the community, but that the storage and organization of footage would require innovative, expensive planning.
In the question and answer section of the town hall, a virtual attendee questioned the ramifications for officers not using their body cameras in Essex County.
“If we can prove that it’s not simply a malfunction of the equipment, but that a police officer is intentionally attempting not to use their body-worn camera, that is something that could not only face administrative consequences but could also arise to the level of criminality,” explained Albu.
When asked by another virtual attendee if systematic racism would ever be removed from policing, Prosecutor Stephens explained that training for implicit bias and screening potential officers are essential steps to eliminating racism in Essex County police. Lt. Colonel Noble added that there is no tolerance for racist officers, but reducing biased behavior is challenging and perhaps unachievable. He stressed his belief that adding additional systems in place would help decrease racist and biased behavior.
Lucas Cooperman is a rising sophomore at Northeastern University, studying media, screen studies and journalism.