Community activists presented the Maplewood Township Committee with strong challenges and a proactive list of demands on Tuesday night in the aftermath of a summer of difficult reckonings for the town and its police department.
“We have an opportunity to be the kind of community that we want to be,” said Hilton resident Khadijah Costley White, who is one of the administrators of the Facebook group SOMA Justice.
White, who grew up in South Orange, graduated from Columbia High School and now an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, has been active in calling for police reform in the town, particularly in light of the incidents of July 5, 2016. Police tapes from the night revealed police punching and kicking one handcuffed local teen, and audio documented police leaders directing officers to move local teens out of town and hold the border.
White was one of several community members to take to the microphone during public comments at the Township Committee meeting on September 5 to speak about policing. In addition, she presented a document of demands for improved policing practices to the Township Committee. White reported that the demands — which include such recommendations as rigorous de-escalation training, community oversight, and conducting a national search for a new chief of police — were supported and endorsed by several community groups including the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, PARES, SOMA Black Parents Workshop, SOMA Action and the MapSO Freedom School.
See the full demands attached below in a downloadable PDF.
Making an emotional plea, White referred to her 10-month-old son and extended family members and said she had been unable to watch the full tapes.
“I’ve been unable to do so, to see graphic images of children that look like me, and my son, and my nephews and niece, brutalized, demeaned, denigrated, and treated like cattle by the people that are supposed to protect,” said White.
“I don’t have to tell you what happened that night was wrong.”
White said that the removal of Police Chief Robert Cimino was insufficient and that systemic change needed to happen in the police department.
“[Cimino] wasn’t the one who used chemical agents on children trying to get home, he wasn’t the one who kicked a teenager in the head or looked the other way when it happened. He might have issued orders that night, but he wasn’t the one that chose to follow them. So tonight, I come to submit a list of recommendations for reorganizing our current police department and culture,” said White.
“You will see that we think is is time for more community input on policing, better training, improved protocols on crowd management, and civilian oversight. We also recommend a commission made of up civilian volunteers and local experts on these matters who can help figure out how to move forward on these proposals and we ask the Township Committee to convene a specific session that will address these recommendation or to arrange a meeting with us and the public safety committee to discuss how they will be implemented.”
“We are serious about these recommendations,” added White. “We can’t risk one of our children being killed by a local police officer after going to see fireworks in a local park. We simply can not.”
White said that the community groups would also be submitting the demands to Hillard Heintze, the third party firm hired by the Township to complete the investigation of the events of July 5, 2016. Mayor Vic DeLuca said that the Township expected Hillard Heintze’s final report by mid-September.
“We will continue to show up here to remind you all that we care,” said White, “that we want change, that firing one man is not enough to resolve the actions of many.”
“We have an opportunity to be the kind of community that we want to be, to police our community the way that we want, and we want to set a standard that will keep our children safe, every single one,” said White. “So, let’s do it.”
Later in the meeting, Maplewood resident and Community Coalition on Race member Erin Scherzer echoed White’s comments, noting, “our policing is lagging behind what we are trying to be as a community.”
“We urge and stand behind and with SOMA Justice and the proposals they are putting forward,” said Scherzer.
When contacted via email after the meeting, Mayor DeLuca said TC members were still reviewing the document, but wrote, “We will do so and determine next steps.”
Township Committeeman Frank McGehee also responded to a request for comment via email: “I have not finished reviewing the document provided at the meeting last night but I appreciate Dr. White coming to the TC meeting and speaking as well as Ms. Scherzer who represented the CCR and the other speakers/organizations that were represented and spoke last night.”
Dr. White provided the full text for her comments below:
I was going to begin my comment tonight with a description of what you, the Township Committee, have done in regards to the events of July 5th, 2016. I was going to describe what’s happened since that night and since the night you announced the release of a video so that all of us could witness what these kids have long been telling us happened.
But I decided against that. You know what’s happened. You know what’s been done.
My name is Dr. Khadijah Costley White. I am a current resident of the Hilton section of Maplewood, a former resident of South Orange, and a NJ state employee, as professor at Rutgers University. Recently, I’ve done some organizing and started a group called SOMA Justice in our community, which focuses on education, outreach, and advocacy around issues of social justice.
I’m also a mom of a 10 month-old little boy, a beautiful dark-brown skinned baby already consistently in the 90th percentile in height. By all accounts, he’s going to be a big child and a tall man.
I’m an aunt, with two nephews my complexion and a sweet niece just starting 3rd grade.
I love these children with brown skin and curly fros. I was a child with brown skin and a curly fro.
And I have something else to admit. While I have extensively read on the videos that show the violence of July 5, 2016, I have only been able to watch a small bit of them myself. Mentally and emotionally, I’ve been unable to do so, to see graphic images of children that look like me, and my son, and my nephews and niece, brutalized, demeaned, denigrated, and treated like cattle by the people that are supposed to protect. The people that me and other taxpayers PAY to protect us.
I don’t have to tell you that what happened that night was wrong. I probably don’t even have to tell that I’ve been working, supporting local protests, organizing a Know Your Rights event, monitoring police at the most recent July 4th event, and meeting with fellow community members, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. You know how much I care, how much so many of us care to make sure nothing like this ever happens again in our two towns. And firing Chief Cimino is simply not enough. He wasn’t the one who used chemical agents on children trying to get home, he wasn’t the one who kicked a teenager in the head or looked the other way when it happened. He might have issued orders that night, but he wasn’t the one that chose to follow them.
So tonight, I come to submit a list of recommendations for reorganizing our current police department and culture. This is a list approved and endorsed by a coalition of community groups such as SOMA Justice, PARES, the Community Coalition on Race, The Black Parents Workshop, MAPSO Freedom School, and SOMA Action. You will see that we think it’s time for more community input on policing, better training, improved protocols on crowd management, and civilian oversight. We also recommend a commission made up of civilian volunteers and local experts on these matters who can help figure out how to move forward on these proposals. And we ask that the Township Committee convene a specific session that will address these recommendations or to arrange a meeting with us and the public safety committee to discuss their implementation.
We are serious about these changes. We are serious about getting involved. Because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t. We can’t risk one of our children being killed by a local police officer after going out to see the fireworks in a nearby park. We simply cannot.
We are also submitting a copy of these proposals to Hillard Heintze, the law enforcement firm that is reviewing these events.
And we will continue to show up here, at these meetings, to remind you that we care, that we want more change, that firing one man is not enough to resolve the actions of many. We have an opportunity to be the kind of community we want, to police our community the way we want, to set a standard that will keep all of our children safe. Let’s do it. Thanks.