Maplewood elected officials and volunteer citizens groups are moving forward to create an advisory group that would involve residents in working collaboratively the Maplewood Police Department.
The activity follows in the aftermath of the release of video, audio and police reports that rocked the community this summer, detailing police herding a group of teenagers out of town after the July 5, 2016 fireworks as well as showing an officer kicking a handcuffed and prostrate Maplewood teen in the head.
Maplewood resident Kasia Piekarz took to the microphone during the first public comment portion of the November 21 Maplewood Township Committee, presenting a list of potential members for a possible civilian review board — or CRB — on behalf of the Facebook-based group SOMA Justice, which had been working with SOMA Action and the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.
Piekarz said she was “thrilled” with the response of the Township since the police actions had come to light.
Piekarz also said she hoped the town could “think a little bit broader about what we can achieve here.” She said that members of SOMA Justice not only wanted to “help the police department rethink its training,” but “rethink how it works with people of color in our community.”
“Down the road … communities can come to us [as an example],” said Piekarz.
Kelly Quirk, speaking on behalf of the local group SOMA Action, presented a document to the Township Committee detailing “different models and different price points” for CRBs across the nation. The document, like the list, was the joint work of the three organizations.
Erin Scherzer of the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, noted that the three groups were interested in using technology that Acting Maplewood Police Chief Jim DeVaul had put forward to analyze data around police stops and ticketing in order to “see patterns and change practices.” Scherzer said that, in working with Maplewood police over the past few months, the groups found that it was “very clear that [police officers] have wanted to be more community engaged over the years.”
The three groups — the Community Coalition on Race, SOMA Action and SOMA Justice — met with police and town leaders in early November to discuss a potential CRB. Township Committeeman and public safety liaison Greg Lembrich said that another meeting will take place in the first full week of December.
Later in the meeting, Township Committee members discussed the potential for a CRB. Members noted that the nomenclature for the group had not been decided — whether it would be a “board,” a “committee” or something else.
Lembrich reported on the November community meeting and noted, “One thing we have all agreed on: we do not want a confrontational relationship between police and community; we want collaboration.”
Lembrich recognized SOMA Justice, the CCR and SOMA Action “for the work they have put in and the research they did. The proposal they introduced tonight and the precedents and examples from other communities.”
“In terms of recommendations, I don’t know that tonight is right time to get into the weeds of what the citizens advisory committee would look like, but I would like to highlight important issues.”
Lembrich said he felt it was important not have this committee “filled with government officials or law enforcement” — that different community stakeholders were necessary along with liaisons from township and the police. He also said he wanted to raise the issue of whether or not there should be a youth member “or would we want a separate youth committee?”
He also stated that he felt there should be training and orientation for all members of the committee/board — so that all would have a strong understanding of police training and standards.
Committeeman Frank McGehee noted that “the meeting that we had in November with the organizations was excellent,” calling it “an education for us as the Township Committee and the constituents to understand what we can and cannot do from a legal perspective.”
McGehee said he was looking forward to getting “into the weeds” at the December meeting and having “frank conversations.”
“A lot of things are doable and others frankly are not doable,” said McGehee. In addition to having the acting police chief present for the December community meeting, McGehee suggested also having another police representative from a lower rank participating. He also said that it was beneficial for town officials and involved residents to experience a police ride-along.
Finally, McGehee noted that “training is expensive and we are going to have to prepare for that cost from a budget perspective.”
Mayor DeLuca expressed gratitude for the research document from the citizens groups and noted that he had performed some research as well, detailing some best practices from Knowville, TN; Mobile, AL; and St. Petersburg, FL.
Ultimately the TC members and citizens groups all echoed these statements from Lembrich: “The goal is to build mutual understanding and trust” and “bring the community in here and make this more transparent.”
See the public comments at the 7:45 mark in the video; see the discussion beginning at the 40:10 mark.