South Orange, Maplewood Leaders Meet With County Prosecutor to Talk Police Use of Force, Accountability

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Following on increased community demands for transparency related to police use of force and disciplinary records, leaders of South Orange and Maplewood met with officials at the Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II on September 10 to begin addressing issues and concerns and to make suggestions related to police accountability.

On September 14, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Public Safety liaison Trustee Donna Coallier updated the public on the meeting with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) at the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting. On September 15, Maplewood Public Safety Committee Chair Greg Lembrich updated the Maplewood Township Committee and Maplewood citizens on the meeting.

Also participating in the meeting with the ECPO were: Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee, Maplewood Community Board on Policing Co-Chair Erin Scherzer, and South Orange Community Police Collaborative Chair Bobby Brown.

Referencing NJ Advance Media’s “Force Report,” Collum told the South Orange Trustees, “We have all this data, we have this information, and of course we’re not talking about all uses of forces, we’re talking about excessive uses of force or illegal uses of force, and how we share those numbers on the prosecutor’s side, especially in the busiest county in all of New Jersey, with the public so that they know there is accountability in place.”

In a following email, Collum wrote, “While the Force Report by NJ Advance Media set the stage for understanding the volume of force being utilized by whom and against whom, where it falls short is addressing the question: what happens next? For local municipalities, the accountability happens at the county level and through state reforms that will give municipalities more and better tools in how our departments handle discipline administratively.”

Collum said the meeting with the ECPO was the start of addressing concerns South Orange and Maplewood officials had internally about the process of how the South Orange and Maplewood Police departments interact with the prosecutor’s office, and specifically, SOPD and internal affairs, when and if there is any conflict of interest or potential conflict of interest.

“We have a heightened awareness and appreciation for the role of policing in our community, etc., how we work directly with ECPO and their professional staff and our professional standards … on doing more, doing more across the board and enhancing that partnership,” Collum said.

Trustee Coallier clarified her comments in a followup email: “Our community has clearly indicated a desire for police reform with protests and other communications. We’ve identified how the county can make some process improvements that will help us address alleged excessive force. Some of the change needs to come at the state level and we’re asking for community help there too. Everything that we can do on our own, here in the municipalities, will get done.”

“We have all been talking about police reform for a very long time and it’s actions like this one that actually make change happen that can really drive policing improvement in our communities, but not only in our communities, also all the way across Essex county,” Coallier added.

Coallier said the meeting outcome was that “we asked the ECPO to enhance their process for investigating excessive use of force and to continue the dialogue in ongoing meetings and forums.” Coallier said officials focused on three areas:

1) Transparency and accessibility regarding the investigation process, burden of proof and case result data; standard processes and timing for notifying the community of the facts related to alleged excessive force; and disclosure of why criminal charges were or were not pursued;

2) Process improvements, specifically with regard to a) conflict identification and resolution, prior to commencement of ECPO investigations and b) how the ECPO communicates its findings; and

3) The need for more expeditious investigation and conclusions, given the financial burden (especially for smaller police agencies) of pursuing criminal or administrative action.

In an email followup with Village Green, Collum wrote, “I’m very pleased with the dialogue we’re having with Acting County Prosecutor Stevens and his staff. This will be an ongoing discussion and we hope to have a forum in conjunction with ECPO in the upcoming months. At the state level, I’d like us to address a piece of reform that’s yet to be discussed: increasing the probationary period of officers from 1 year to 3 years. We need more time with recruits before making a 25+ year commitment.”

In an email update to Village Green, Lembrich noted that a letter has since been sent to the ECPO “jointly by the Mayors, Public Safety chairs, and Police Board chairs of the two towns last week as a follow-up to our meeting with Prosecutor Stephens and representatives from his office on September 10.”

“Neither the meeting nor the letter was specifically focused on any one particular police use of force case,” Lembrich added, “but addressed our community’s questions about and experiences with the way that ECPO handles police excessive force cases that are referred to that office.” Outlining similar talking points to those described by Coallier, Lembrich noted that, “The ECPO was open to our questions and feedback, and we are optimistic that the towns and that office will reach a better understanding of our respective positions and responsibilities regarding police use of force through this dialogue.”

Scherzer added, “We also worked to establish a working relationship with the ECPO for future collaboration between the local and county level for programmatic work. And had a conversation about communication and engagement with the community when something happens.”

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