Before the public became aware of a traffic stop involving South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad this past week, the South Orange Village Board of Trustees reviewed the video and forwarded it to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker with a memo expressing their concerns on May 7.
In the video, Lawson-Muhammad identifies herself to the police officer as a member of the Board of Education, mentions South Orange Village President Sheena Collum by first name and refers to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead.”
“As Chair of the Public Safety Committee I became aware of a troubling incident that occurred during the issuance of a ticket on a traffic stop,” South Orange Village Trustee Howard Levison wrote in response to an email request from Village Green. “That incident was video recorded, as is the case on all such stops. I requested a review of the video recording to better understand that incident, and based upon what I observed, I concluded that it was
Levison continued, “I came to that conclusion as the incident involved members of two governing bodies, the BOT and the BOE. In the case of the BOT the incident might give the very false impression that the Village President might intercede in cases involving traffic violations. For this and other obvious reasons the BOT unanimously agreed to send the BOE President a letter and a copy of the video for their information.” (Updated: Village President Sheena Collum reports that this is a a measure she did not support and expressed her thoughts on the traffic stop incident in a letter to the public on May 17.)
The BOT’s review of the video, discussion and vote took place in closed session on May 4.
The South Orange Board of Trustees is made of six members: Levison, Mark Rosner, Deborah Davis-Ford, Walter Clarke, Steve Schnall and Karen Hilton.
The resulting memo from Acting Village Administrator Adam D. Loehner on behalf of the BOT to Baker reads: “Upon the request of the South Orange Board of Trustees, enclosed please find a USB drive of an incident that took place Friday, April 27, 2018, involving a South Orange Maplewood Board of Education, Board Member, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and South Orange Police Officer, Shaun Horst.”
The memo continues, “The Village has great concerns regarding Ms. Lawson-Muhammad response to a routine traffic stop for speeding.” (See the memo below.)
Sometime on or before May 14, Walter Fields of the Black Parents Workshop reported that he found out about the incident through an “anonymous text.”
Fields then wrote a letter to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker dated May 14, saying, “It has come to my attention that a current Board member may have been involved in a confrontation with an officer of the South Orange Police Department on April 27, 2018.” Fields stated that he would be filing an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the dashcam video. (See letter below.)
In a followup letter dated May 16 to Baker, Fields wrote that he had since “obtained the video through an anonymous source.” (Fields told Village Green that it had arrived in an “unmarked package.”) In this letter, he calls for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation, for the Board of Education to publicly condemn Lawson-Muhammad’s actions, and for Elizabeth Baker’s resignation if she withheld knowledge of the incident from the BOE and the public. (See letter below.)
Fields sent the letter and video to Village Green on the morning of May 16. Meanwhile, TAPinto reported that it had obtained a copy of the video and posted a report. The dashcam video of the traffic stop involving Lawson-Muhammad went viral, dominating local news and making headlines outside the community.
On May 17, Lawson-Muhammad issued a public apology for the incident, commended South Orange Police Officer Shaun Horst and reported that she had met with South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll, who “sincerely accepted my apology and agrees that we will work together to help heal our community.” (In her May 17 statement on the incident, Village President Sheena Collum reported, “A meeting had been requested by the board member prior to this incident becoming public and has since occurred.” Update: In a subsequent Facebook post, Collum noted that the meeting took place on Wednesday, May 16, after the video became public.)
“I want to sincerely apologize for my uncharacteristic behavior displayed in the police video on April 27th,” Lawson-Muhammad wrote in her statement. “I had an irrational response to being stopped for a traffic violation. I allowed my emotions to overwhelm me that morning, and I fell short of the standards to which I hold myself.”
Baker also responded publicly on May 17, stating in part, “Since I was made aware by the South Orange Village Administrator of the traffic stop incident involving my fellow Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, I have acted in consultation with the School District’s counsel to ensure adherence to all legal and ethical obligations. I also encouraged Ms. Lawson-Muhammad to personally apologize to Chief Kroll and engage in a dialogue that would repair the harms that her statements caused.”
Meanwhile on May 17, Fields issued a press release stating his intention “to file a formal ethics complaint against Ms. Lawson-Muhammad and pending our review of information related to Board President Elizabeth Baker, stand prepared to do likewise against the Board president as well. In the short-term Ms. Baker should step down from her role as president until it can be determined what she knew and when she knew it.” Fields told Village Green that he intends to file the complaint against Lawson-Muhammad on Monday, May 21.
Regarding the fact that Fields reported that he had obtained the video through unofficial channels, Levison responded, “There have been many OPRA requests for the video and one of them may have been the source.” Update: In a Facebook post, Collum reported: “I don’t have an answer yet regarding an alleged ‘leak’ other than I’m aware that an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request was submitted this past Tuesday morning (and subsequently, more came in). These are handled by records custodians. I have asked the Legal and Personnel Committee to review this concern.”
A number of community groups have also responded to the incident with statements.
The founding members of PARES—Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity in SOMA Schools defended Lawson-Muhammad and characterized Fields’ actions as politically motivated “attacks” on Lawson-Muhammad that were “a blatant ploy to sow dissent and encourage discord among the BOE, just as it embarks on its plan to desegregate our school district.”
The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race struck a more conciliatory tone: “In this case, we were pleased to be of help in facilitating conversations and communications between the people involved along with support and input Rev. Terry Richardson. We are aware that the parties involved are working toward reconciliation. Given their willingness to work together, we appeal to the public that comments on this incident show a concern for the safe and equitable treatment of people of color, doing what is best for all our children, and come from a communal interest in empathy.”
The leadership of SOMA Justice: Addressing Race and Inequality wrote, “We urge the Board [of Education] not to request or accept her or Elizabeth Baker’s resignation, and to permit Lawson-Muhammad to resolve any remaining issues with the South Orange Police Department in her personal capacity.” In addition, SOMA Justice asked for the Board of Education to”investigate, and to join us in calling for South Orange to investigate, how the Black Parents Workshop obtained this video.”