As Maplewood Township nears the end of a self-imposed 90-day suspension of the Maplewood Auxiliary Police, community members expressed their concerns over the township’s use of armed auxiliary police officers at a contentious, five-hour-long virtual Public Safety Meeting on Oct. 14.
The Township is expected to make a decision about whether or not auxiliary police will continued to be armed at the October 20 Maplewood Township Committee meeting. A report answering frequently asked questions and explaining the duties of the auxiliary police (see below) was release on October 13.
The public comment portion of the October 14 public safety committee meeting featured over 25 concerned citizens. One of the main questions was the reasoning behind arming the auxiliary police, who are unpaid volunteers. Maplewood Police Department Standard Operating Procedure for auxiliary officers states that it is appropriate to limit the use of firearms to certain emergency situations and training, but the department is currently not enforcing these limitations.
During the public portion, Gail Liebowitz questioned why officers need firearms for certain tasks laid out in the procedures, such as traffic control.
“I’m pretty confused with this definition that going on crossing guard duty, or other duties that the auxiliary are doing, how that fits in with at least this piece here about how the training should actually be for emergencies and disasters,” Liebowitz said.
Chief of Police Jimmy DeVaul argued that traffic control could be an emergency situation in terms of natural disasters.
“Traffic control and pedestrian safety is absolutely prevalent during an emergency,” DeVaul said. “When we had this storm recently, there was a time when we had up to 20 or 30 intersections out that needed to be manned by police officers.”
When pressed on his definition of emergency, DeVaul said: “What an emergency is, is determined by us at the time.”
The definition of training was also brought under scrutiny during the meeting. Suzanne Schaefer questioned the need for arms on the job for training purposes, since many of the auxiliary officers have been on the force for over 10 years.
“Does that actually give maybe some leeway in terms of when we would think about being armed with a gun not necessary because people have reached their training quota, they understand how to do this, they’ve proven that they’re veterans of this force?” Schaefer said.
DeVaul responded by stating that an officer always has more to learn and learns new things everyday. As the meeting moved on to the next comment, many attendees commented in the virtual meeting chat that DeVaul was “dodging” the question.
“The question is not about learning but training…when are people adequately trained?” Chrishana Lloyd wrote.
“It sounds like everything is training and they are never fully trained,” Owen Uscher wrote.
DeVaul was accused of dodging a question again when Heather Craven asked if the firearms of the auxiliary police have benefited the community in any way. DeVaul commented on the service that the officers provide to the township.
“I didn’t ask whether their service was valuable, but whether and how ARMING them helps the community?” Craven wrote in the virtual meeting chat.
Dr. Khadijah Costley White said the arming of these officers increases the possibility of racially charged police shootings.
“If you give guns to people with less experience, you have to think about how they might be used,” White said. “A lot of folks who really support and defend the police department officers look at what happened to Breonna Taylor and they say that’s not a big deal because that’s not what most cops do, that most cops are good apples, but what we’re asking you to think about are the bad apples. We’re asking you to think about mistakes that might happen because that is what I think about every single day.”
Vanessa Parvin asked if anyone in the township has checked with the state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to see if he approves of the town’s usage of an armed auxiliary force.
“I wanted to see if, during this 90-day review period, if anybody on your side has checked with the Attorney General to see whether we are in compliance with how the auxiliary is being used, especially the fact that they’re armed,” Parvin said.
Township Committee Member Greg Lembrich said he has not contacted the Attorney General because Grewal has written letters stating that municipal attorneys should be the ones to review the legality of arming auxiliary police. Town officials have met with the township attorney, who will speak on the issue at the Oct. 20 town council meeting.
At a prior meeting in July, town officials agreed to investigate the auxiliary police and send out a report soon after. Community members on the Oct. 14 virtual meeting expressed disappointment with the timing of the report (see attached below) which was released on Oct. 13. On Oct. 20, the Maplewood Township Committee is slated to discuss and possibly vote on arming of auxiliary officers.
“You committed to publishing a comprehensive document clarifying the roles of the auxiliary police force and answering frequently asked questions at the township meeting in July,” Olivia Brash said. “You have had over two months to put this together, yet you waited until last night, a week before the decision, to release it.”
Erin Scherzer, co-chair of the Maplewood Community Board on Policing, said that the timeline is rushed and there needs to be more public input before coming to a decision.
“If we’re really trying to protect the public, and part of that public is the auxiliary officers that have served for decades, I feel like we owe more time, careful thought, and more collaboration,” Erin Scherzer said.
At the end of the five hour meeting, some community members still did not have a full understanding of the issue.
“I felt uninformed when this meeting started and I hoped for clarity…it now feels like there is a lot of smoke and mirrors…nothing feels clear,” Lloyd said in the virtual meeting chat.
The issue of arming the police will be further discussed and voted on at the Oct. 20 town council meeting, which begins at 7:30 pm. The meeting will be on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the link can be found on the township website.
Jenna Sundel is a sophomore at Montclair State University majoring in Journalism. She is the Assistant News Editor for The Montclarion, Montclair State University’s newspaper, where she has covered COVID-19, climate change, and the 2020 election. She began writing for The Village Green in 2020.