Government Maplewood Police and Fire

Maplewood Chief Showed July 5 Police Tapes to Select Community Members While Public Waits for Release

Editor’s note, July 25, 8:02 p.m.: Village Green has included the full statements from Walter Fields and TJ Whitaker at the end of this article. On July 27, 12:18 p.m. Village Green added a response from the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and linked to a response from Rev. Terry Richardson. Incident reports and audio from the July 5, 2016 incident were released the afternoon of July 25. 

While the Village Green and members of the public who filed Open Public Record Act requests for the release of police tapes from July 5, 2016 still wait for the release of those tapes, the Maplewood Police Chief has shown other community members the tapes.

Mayor Vic DeLuca confirmed to Village Green today that he discovered this morning that Police Chief Robert Cimino had “unilaterally” showed the tapes to three community members. Previous to this morning, DeLuca said that the Township Committee was not aware of any viewing by a community member or members.

DeLuca said that the audio tapes would be released shortly and the video would be released as soon as the faces of minors had been blurred to protect their identity. (Village Green consulted with a journalist at a larger media outlet who said this is standard practice.)

The tapes are  police audio and video recordings of an incident after the town fireworks last year in which police escorted a group of mostly black teens toward the Irvington border. A fight broke out at Elmwood and Boyden avenues resulting in the arrest of three South Orange teenage boys and one Maplewood teenage boy. After an investigation, the Professional Standards Bureau of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office ruled in April that there was “insufficient credible evidence” to prosecute Chief Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummis on charges of racial profiling. However, the ECPO referred a portion of the investigation back to Maplewood for completion.

Although the town had previously stated it could not release the tapes during an active investigation, the Maplewood Township Committee voted 5-0 on July 18 to release the tapes.

At the time of the vote, the Mayor read this statement: “Despite an ongoing internal affairs investigation by the Maplewood Police Department, the Maplewood Township Committee has decided that it is now time and it is in the public interest to release the video and audio tapes of the events of July 5, 2016. It has been reported to the Township Committee that disciplinary actions have been taken against several Maplewood police officers.”

When asked by Village Green for details about the disciplinary action, DeLuca responded, “I cannot comment on the disciplinary actions by the Maplewood Police Department.”

After the July 18 vote, Township counsel indicated that the materials would be released a day or two after the vote, However, the preparation of the materials has taken longer than initially anticipated. Mayor Vic DeLuca reported on Monday night, July 24, that the “audio material will be provided as soon as possible” but that “[t]he images of minors on the videos will be electronically modified so that minors cannot be identified. It is anticipated the videos will be available by July 31st.”

TJ Whitaker, a CHS teacher and parent who filed for the tapes, released a statement to Village Green decrying the fact that Chief Cimino had shown to community members ahead of public release.

“Given the amount of time it took to get the tapes released, we have to conclude that the leak of the recordings is an attempt to water down the impact and the potential fallout from the community.” Whitaker called the leak “an age-old tactic from the days of slavery whereby white masters used ‘prominent’ members of the enslaved community to control the actions of potential rebels. It will not work.”

Walter Fields of the Black Parents Workshop expressed similar concern:

“We are also concerned that certain groups that did not file OPRA requests have been given access to the videotapes as an attempt by Chief Cimino to curry favor and create the perception that he has community support,” said Fields in a message to Village Green. “Those individuals who have viewed the videotapes, and failed to disclose such, are complicit in the cover-up of this incident. It is this backroom, back-scratching that puts the lives of our children in jeopardy. By acting in this manner, these individuals and/or groups are demonstrating a failure in moral leadership as they seek a hollow ‘peace’ but not justice for our children. Their self-dealing further disqualifies their leadership and their legitimacy in the eyes of our children and youth.”

Whitaker said that the private release was indicative a worsening in police and community relations in recent years “under Chief Cimino and he has used various individuals and groups along the way to provide cover,” and called for Cimino’s removal.

“This latest attempt to control the damage of his destructive decision-making should be his last,” wrote Whitaker. “The Town Council should seriously consider a vote of ‘No Confidence’ in Chief Cimino. Simply put, the community deserves better leadership from its top law enforcement official and those in his charge.”

In response to an inquiry by Village Green, a spokesperson for the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race replied, “A Coalition on Race trustee member did view the video with the understanding that it was about to be released the next morning. The Coalition on Race is deeply concerned about the treatment of people of color by the police and we have been actively engaged in reforming biased policing at all levels. Going forward, we look forward to working with all members of the community on calling for changes that will support fair and unbiased community policing in Maplewood.”

In a statement sent to Village Green, the Rev. Terry Richardson of the First Baptist Church of South Orange replied: “”Contrary to the accusations made of me, there is no backroom conspiracy on my part to hide the truth to protect those who deserve prosecution for their actions which violated the right of youth during the July 5, 2016 incident. My agreement to accept an invitation to review said tapes was a decision I made as a leader with a 20-year history of working in and with the community on matters pertinent to all residents. After reviewing the soundless video tapes, I saw the immediate need to organize leaders in anticipation of the possibility of viral public reaction reminiscent to those plastered on our televisions sets and smart devices from similar incidents occurring around the country. I would think sound-minded people would see this as carrying out a moral obligation, not espionage.” ”

Read Richardson’s full response here.

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