Calling the release of a statewide database on police use of force by the Star-Ledger “shocking” and “painful,” Mayor Vic DeLuca set the tone for a community meeting organized by Maplewood Township on January 14 at The Woodland.
In compiling the database known as The Force Report, reporters filed hundreds of requests for information through the Open Public Records Act to obtain 72,677 documents from every local police department in New Jersey from 2012 through 2016. Maplewood and South Orange were “significant outliers” coming in high in reported use of force “particularly along racial lines.” In fact, Maplewood ranked as the highest in the state in rate of use of force.
“When the Force Report came out,” said DeLuca, “we were, I guess, [feeling] a range of emotions from surprise to shock to embarrassed but most importantly we were committed to continuing the conversation and continuing our work to build a bridge between the police and the community.”
DeLuca thanked NJ Advance Media/Star-Ledger reporter Steve Sitrling — who also happens to be a Maplewood resident — and his colleagues for “what you did.”
DeLuca said the Force Report was a “call to action for thinking about how we can do policing better.”
“This is a painful conversation for us because it shows things that we were not proud of,” said DeLuca, “but we are going to move forward. We are going to try not to be defensive tonight… We are proud of what we do, we are proud of our police. We just want to make it better.”
The panel was deftly led by Erin Scherzer, Co-Chair (with Kasia Piekarz) of Maplewood’s newly formed Community Board on Police, and included Maplewood Police Chief Jim DeVaul; Greg Lembrich, Maplewood Township Committee member and Chair of the Public safety committee; Maplewood Police Deputy Chief Albert Sally; and Thomas Eicher, director of the New Jersey Office of Public Integrity & Accountability (OPIA), which was created by NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal four months ago.
After explaining the role of the Community Board on Police, Scherzer launched into a Q&A between her and the panel members. First she asked Chief DeVaul to explain the use of force form. DeVaul explained that officers must fill it out “any time an officer uses force.” DeVaul said that the use of force form was required by both New Jersey Attorney General guidelines and Maplewood Police Department policy.
Scherzer asked DeVaul what his reaction was to the release of The Force Report.
DeVaul responded in part, “When I saw this report, I wasn’t surprised by anything in the report. When I went before a group similar to this to interview to be Chief, I acknowledged that a lot of changes needed to be made. I welcome the report.” DeVaul said that he was interested in “taking these reports and turning it into something that we can utilize.”
Scherzer also asked, “The use of force is permitted under New Jersey law. How do you address what level of force is appropriate based on the scenario? And how do you address when it is not used properly?”
DeVaul explained that it is a “multi-stage process.”
DeVaul said that the Maplewood Police Department’s policy is “much more inclusive or restrictive” than the AG’s — depending on how you look at it. It requires that in all instances when an officer uses force “in any degree” a use of force report must be filed. “Any time that someone [who is arrested] is non compliant and/or we have to take some action, we have to report,” said DeVaul. “If they [the officer] didn’t do anything wrong they don’t have to hide it.”
DeVaul said that the report is then reviewed by the officer’s immediate supervisor and then a secondary supervisor who reports to command staff [if the use of force is questionable] who then starts an investigation with Deputy Chief Sally and “then to Internal Affairs, if necessary. Then up the chain of command and lastly with me.”
DeVaul said that the process “allows fairness for the officer, allows for training along the way to take corrective action before coming to the Chief, where then we may be inclined to take some form of discipline.”
“I look at all of these use of force forms as an opportunity to talk to an officer on how to properly handle a situation,” said DeVaul.
Scherzer probed, “There is a thought that sometimes the police monitor the police; how do we ensure no slip-ups in terms of reporting?”
DeVaul, alluding the events of July 5, 2016 and the subsequent shake-up at the police department, acknowledged, “I did not become Chief under ideal circumstances. I believe that only working with the Community Board is going to foster trust. I want to say that we have been open and transparent as much to the extent that we can.”
Scherzer asked Deputy Chief Sally to explain what happens in spot checks on officers. Sally noted that all officers have body cameras now. “On top of that, we do random checks. Use of force triggers checks but we also do random checks.”
Scherzer noted that “a startling part of the report” was the high percentage of use of force on youth and young adults. “Post July 5, what is the MPD doing to better engage with youth?” she asked.
DeVaul outlined “extensive policy changes ” implemented since he became Chief: One of first tasks, he reported, was to abolish the street crimes unit. “Their job was to make arrests and stop suspicious persons. I created a full time traffic bureau in its place.” DeVaul said he did not recognize the value of street crimes unit.
“With juveniles, I changed our policy and made officers and supervisors responsible for all juvenile arrests.” DeVaul said this move was made in order “to hold them [the officers and supervisors] responsible.” DeVaul added, “There was a time when we would make arrests in the schools, My policy is to no longer do that unless absolutely necessary.” He said that he also instituted a juvenile restorative justice initiative, which he said “never existed in the state.” The point, said DeVaul, was to avoid placing youth in the criminal justice system: “Maplewood PD is going to be handling juveniles differently going forward.”
Scherzer asked for more details about the restorative justice initiative.
DeVaul explained that it is voluntary: Youth can be referred to it. The initiative is run by a group of volunteers and residents from South Orange and Maplewood with The Rev. Brenda Ehlers of Morrow Church as the liaison.
DeVaul also mentioned the term “station house adjustment” and explained that it is “through the AG’s office” and gives MPD “latitude for dealing with juveniles without charges.”
“We had a youth aid bureau before,” said DeVaul, who explained that the bureau is now merged with detective bureau. “Now officers are each responsible” for the youth they arrest.
Scherzer asked what makes this system better.
DeVaul said that it makes officers more accountable for their own actions because they are “less likely to make the arrest if they know they are going to be responsible from start to finish. Not just the paperwork, but the charges.”
Scherzer asked Township Committee member Greg Lembrich why “the July 5 incident does not line up with force reports” (no use of force reports were filed by Maplewood Police officers on July 5, 2016, despite the fact that 10 officers where ultimately disciplined for their actions that evening, which included punching and kicking a prone, handcuffed Maplewood minor.
“Ten officers were disciplined and none filed reports and that is part of what they were disciplined for,” said Lembrich, who added, “That was a problem in the system that we have dealt with in Maplewood. The data is only as good as the source.”
Lembrich said that this incident “really brought home” for officers that “you will face IA discipline for failure to report.” Lembrich added that the fact that all officers now have body cameras will make investigations easier.
Scherzer pressed Lembrich on a question that has stuck with many in the community: Why can the names of those 10 officers not be revealed?
Lembrich explained that “there are various protections and prohibitions under NJ state law that limit what can be disclosed to the public and the governing body. In terms of IA, the public and governing body can know that 10 officers were disciplined but the identities are not exposed.” Lembrich added, “The governing body is in the same position as the public. What will happen is that when an officer comes up for promotion, that is something that the Township Committee will see.” He noted, the TC “will see if there was discipline and we have the opportunity to consider when deciding whom to promote or not promote.”
Scherzer then pointed out that an outside consultant hired by the Township had identified training gaps for police. “We should be ashamed as a community for the lack of support that we have given our officers to help them do their job well.” She noted that the Community Board on Police was working to identify additional training for officers. Lembrich noted that the Township Committee had doubled the budget for police training.
Captain Kevin Kisch, who is in charge of training, explained it in detail. Village Green will report Kisch’s presentation in a separate story.
(Note: The private Facebook group SOMA Action live-streamed the meeting; to see the video, join the group and search “video”.)
Scherzer asked Eicher to “tell us about the creation of your new office” — The New Jersey Office of Public Integrity & Accountability. Eicher explained, “We’re committed to putting together a system with every use of force that all agencies can use to review and be available to the public. If you get accurate data, you learn things beyond identifying a bad apple. … it also teaches you things unrelated to that.”
Eicher said that his office could put together a database that “would be much more comprehensive than Nj.com’s. I don’t fault them,” he said, but “We could do better.”
Scherzer asked Eicher how he would ensure compliance in collection and input of data.
Eicher said that that effort would start with giving police chiefs the necessary “tools.” The second step would be having County Prosecutors work with police chiefs. And the third step would be having the AG “intervene if a department is way out of line.”
Maplewood resident Audrey Rowe asked the panel to discuss the selection process for hiring: “How do we make sure we have people temperamentally ready?”
Deputy Chief Albert Sally explained, “We started looking for Maplewood residents” and those “familiar with the neighborhoods.” Sally said that the MPD was also “making sure officers are diverse and show the population of the township.” Sally noted the promotion of several officers of color, including his appointment as Deputy Chief and also the promotion of the first African-American female head of the Detective Bureau.
“Now the department is a lot more diverse,” said Sally. He said that there are more African-American officers in specialized units who “were never tin these units before.”
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Sally.
DeVaul added, “My vision is that we are community oriented. We weed out officers we feel will be overly aggressive.” He said that one of the first questions he asks officer candidates is “How much do they know about our community?”
“I can tell you we interviewed 25 last time around and came up with two,” said DeVaul.
Rowe asked if there was a psychological component to hiring.
DeVaul explained, “Yes, there are two psychological tests to pass before going before the governing body.”
Maplewood resident Nancy Gagnier asked about the “lack of appetite” for school resource officers or SROs due to “so much damage in the past.” DeVaul said that police “are in schools daily. We are increasing our role and improving our relationship.” He pointed to the monthly Open Gyms at Columbia High School, the PD’s involvement with afterschool programs like The Hub and The Loft, and the L.E.A.D. (formerly D.A.R.E.) program with 5th graders. “They [the officers] go when they are invited,” said DeVaul.
Village Green will continue to report out from this meeting and on the ramifications of The Force Report as they continue to unfold.