Government Maplewood Police and Fire

Lembrich: NJ System Makes Rooting Out Bad Cops Nearly Impossible

Maplewood Township Committee member and Public Safety Chair Greg Lembrich leveled a devastating indictment of the state of police oversight in New Jersey at the Township Committee meeting on June 2.

Although Lembrich ended his remarks by extolling the work of officers like Patrolman Adrian Verdun who ran into a burning building that morning and rescued a resident, the majority of his remarks centered on “fixing” the “system.”

Lembrich said he’d been asked  “whether the George Floyd situation would have been handled differently had it occurred here in New Jersey.”

“I think that the answer is, ‘Yes, and it probably would have been worse,'” said Lembrich.

“In New Jersey, I’m confident that they would still be on administrative leave today, and likely still being paid, pending months of investigations and hearings. No matter how much elected officials like us wanted to fire them, we’d be told that we could not, that the unions would fight us and the courts would reinstate them and that we would have to not only return the officer’s gun and badge, but also pay them damages and cover their legal fees.”

Lembrich added:

“The system in New Jersey makes removing bad, brutal officers nearly an insurmountable endeavor. We need to fight for reform in Trenton and push back against the police unions and their blue walls. I believe that we can respect the job that our police officers do and provide them the protections they need while also protecting our vulnerable communities, and particularly people of color, who far too often fall victim to police misconduct. This balance is off.”

Lembrich may have been referring to his experience in Maplewood where six officers were disciplined for police brutality related to an incident on July 5, 2016 when local teens were herded out of town and one Maplewood teenager was punched and kicked in the head while handcuffed and face down on the ground. No officers were fired and their identities were not revealed. Although the police chief and a caption resigned upon community pressure after video of the incident was released a year later, and a Community Board on Policing was formed, the Township Committee was unable to conduct a nationwide search for a new chief, as initially promised and needed to promote from within. An investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office into alleged racial profiling by the Maplewood Police found there was “insufficient credible evidence to warrant a prosecution” of the police chief and captain who directed the operation.

“Based upon my experience and observations, for example, I have no confidence that the Essex County Prosecutors Office would file criminal charges against the officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s murder, much less murder charges, and certainly not within a week of the incident,” said Lembrich.

Returning to the heroism of Patrolman Verdun, Lembrich said, “I do want to point out that, while there is a lot of justifiable focus on when our public safety officers do wrong, we should honor and celebrate when they go above and beyond to do right. … I love and appreciate the work they do for our town.”

See Lembrich’s comments at 1:52:30 in the video:

 

Read Lembrich’s full remarks here:

In the past few days, while the national media has focused on sensationalistic images of demonstrations here in the United States, there have also been protests all over the world. People marching in the streets throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia.  These are places that are likewise facing a pandemic, yet many there have been breaking their own lockdowns to stand in solidarity with those demanding change here in America.  I think it is because they recognize the hope that America represents and how important it is for the cause of freedom and all of humankind.  Like us, they are tired of seeing America squander opportunities to evolve and change for the better.

I’ve been thinking about how we can express our shared values and advocate for lasting, meaningful change to support our black neighbors. How can we not squander this opportunity, but use this period of pain and anguish to ensure that we do better moving forward?

I’ve been thinking about this through the lens of being Chair of the Public Safety Committee here in Maplewood, working closely with our police officers, and especially our command staff, here in Town. 

The injustice we see in Minnesota should focus us on issues here at home in New Jersey, where the laws and institutions that protect bad and brutal police officers are arguably even stronger than in Minnesota.  I’ve heard many over the past week say ask whether the George Floyd situation would have been handled differently had it occurred here in New Jersey. 

I think that the answer is Yes, and it probably would have been worse.

The consequences for the officers involved would have been much slower in coming and not nearly as severe.  The officers responsible for Mr. Floyd’s death were fired within days.

In New Jersey, I’m confident that they would still be on administrative leave today, and likely still being paid, pending months of investigations and hearings. No matter how much elected officials like us wanted to fire them, we’d be told that we could not, that the unions would fight us and the courts would reinstate them and that we would have to not only return the officer’s gun and badge, but also pay them damages and cover their legal fees.

Fortunately, the State recently adopted legislation providing that an independent prosecutor investigate where death results from a police incident. This was a huge step forward, helping to eliminate the inherent conflicts of interest involved when local prosecutor’s offices are responsible for investigating and possibly charging the same police officers upon whom they rely to testify and build their criminal cases, and potentially damaging their relationships with departments and officers. 

This incestuous relationship is compounded given the frequent revolving door between local police departments and county prosecutors offices, and also the fact that it is not uncommon for police officers to have friends or even family members in these offices. Based upon my experience and observations, for example, I have no confidence that the Essex County Prosecutors Office would file criminal charges against the officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s murder, much less murder charges, and certainly not within a week of the incident.

For these reasons, I think we need to go further and expand the scope of the special prosecutor to include all acts of police use of force, regardless of whether a death is involved.  We have seen instances in our own community in just the last few years where unnecessary force has been used, and our hands have been tied in trying to address it.  Local police departments can’t even move forward with internal affairs proceedings and discipline of officers until the prosecutor’s office completes its investigation, which often takes months.  Then departments start an internal affairs process that is not only completely outside of public view, but also largely confidential even from local elected officials who are ultimately responsible for representing the community the officers have sworn to protect.  And while there have been some reforms that now allow other law enforcement agencies to access, albeit in a limited matter, the disciplinary history of officers who may be seeking employment with a new department, this information remains largely hidden from the communities those officers serve.

The system in New Jersey makes removing bad, brutal officers nearly an insurmountable endeavor.  We need to fight for reform in Trenton and push back against the police unions and their blue walls.  I believe that we can respect the job that our police officers do and provide them the protections they need while also protecting our vulnerable communities, and particularly people of color, who far too often fall victim to police misconduct.  This balance is off, and needs to be fixed.  I look forward to working with our Chief and command staff, as well as our rank and file officers here in Maplewood, to find appropriate and effective ways to advocate for change.  I know that they agree that police misconduct, like the murder of Mr. Floyd, brings dishonor upon all police officers and is a failure of their job to serve and protect the public.   

Mr. [Dean ] Dafis [the deputy mayor] and I will be meeting [June 3] with the Maplewood Community Board on Police for our monthly meeting, and I expect that we will have vigorous discussion about how our community can continue to create change at the local level, and advocate for reform and accountability at the county, state, and national level. 

Mr. Mayor [Frank McGehee], I know that you will be speaking more tonight and going forward about an upcoming public forum [on June 19] to continue and broaden these discussions, including enlarging the discussion to include people whose voices we have not been hearing.

The note I will close on, especially since I have been largely negative about the police in my remarks, is actually to pay tribute to some really brave and heroic efforts made by our police officers and firefighters less than 24 hours ago.

The fire in town that engulfed a house and spread flames to surrounding houses and vehicles was a conflagration that anyone who has seen the pictures will appreciate the magnitude of.  I’ve had the opportunity over the course of today to speak with several of the officers and firefighters who were on the scene last night and hear their stories, all noting their pride in the bravery of their brothers.

I particularly want to recognize Patrolman Adrian Verdun, who was one of the first on the scene. He is not a firefighter and didn’t have protective firefighting equipment, but he was there and there were people inside who needed help. So he ran into a house that was completely engulfed in flames with dangerous smoke conditions, where he was able to pull one resident out of the fire. 

Then, as our firefighters arrived on the scene, they were able to save two more people, including a daring and difficult ladder rescue from the second floor of the residence. 

All three of those people are fighting for their lives tonight, but they only have that chance because of the heroic acts of men and women wearing Maplewood uniforms. And many others in the neighborhood are safe today because of their efforts to contain the blaze. 

So I do want to point out that, while there is a lot of justifiable focus on when our public safety officers do wrong, we should honor and celebrate when they go above and beyond to do right. Last night their heroism and bravery was needed, and they delivered. I love and appreciate the work they do for our town.

 

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