MONTCLAIR, NJ – Top Montclair officials took an active approach to positive community policing on Thursday night. With the recent ruling of high-profile cases in the national media (ie., Ferguson, Staten Island), in which black men have been killed by white officers, Montclair leaders have taken a proactive approach to beginning a dialogue.
At least a hundred leaders throughout the community gathered at Union Congregational Church for a special stage reading of the play, ‘Uniform Justice’. In attendance were Police Chief Sabagh, members of the Montclair Clergy Association, NAACP President, Al Pelham, Mayor Jackson, Deputy Mayor Russo and the entire township council. This is a first step to begin to chart the course for solutions to maintaining positive police-community relations. Having been moved by the realistic scenarios displayed and the emotions that these interactions evoke, by the end of the perfomance many audience members tearfully applauded.
Roxanne Kent of Union Congregational Church and Sgt. Tyrone Williams of the Montclair Police Department are hoping to bring the play to Montclair with hopes of fostering a creative, constructive outlet for both community and police to address the overlying conflicts existing between them.
Uniform Justice was created by TE’A at Intersections International (Theatre, Engagement & Action) as a community-engaging aspect of a much larger initiative called the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project (RVIP), an innovative demonstration project funded by the Department of Justice to help police departments nationwide address the problem of retaliatory violence in the communities they serve.
Williams has expressed, “We have been working on this before the verdict in Ferguson.” In fact, ahead of its time, Montclair had a community policing unit formerly known as the Community Policing Bureau (CPB), which was established in the mid-1990s. This bureau provided police services to the community with special trained officers. These officers were trained on community policing theories and strategies and were assigned to work in specific neighborhoods or locations. When grants were eliminated and budgets reduced, the program was disbanded. In 2013, Chief Sabagh re-established the Community Service Unit (CSU) and tasked Williams to lead it in an effort to improve communication and trust between law enforcement and the community they serve.
If brought to Montclair, Williams hopes that the play serves as an example of what community engagement can lead to as well as become a catalyst to spark engagement and healthy dialogue in the Montclair community where the themes resonate.
The stories told in the play are done in such a way that there is a character that most people can relate to. It also evokes emotion as the onlooker is given a candid view of the struggles that plague officers and minorities living and serving in urban areas across this nation.
Uniform Justice takes place in Memphis and follows the life of a Memphis police officer from his teenage years into adulthood and the challenges he faces policing in a community plagued by gun violence. The story also touches upon crime between minorities that also exists and the struggles that minorities face trying to survive in the mean streets of the urban area. Major cities from New York to Los Angeles face the same issues that the play is seeking to address.
Written by Chukwuma Obasi, he and Fariddudin F. Johnson co-directed this realistic tale. Dr. James Price, the director of the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project (RVIP), linked this problem to the state of relationships between the police and their communities - when these two groups are in conflict, they are less likely to work together to make the collective community safer.
Memphis, TN was one of two cities selected by the DOJ to engage with this project the other was Lowell, MA, and thus a division of their police department underwent an extensive training in Insight- an approach to conflict analysis and transformation that essentially asks, “what are we doing when we are using our minds to engage and disengage in conflict?”
The goal was to equip police officers with the interpersonal skills to transform conflicts before they escalate into crime. The play itself was inspired by Insight conversations conducted between the playwright, Chuk Obasi, and the actors he worked with, all of whom were residents of Memphis, as well as conversations with local law enforcement, about what was important for them to communicate in regard to the existing barriers between police and community.
The overall impact of the RVIP was very positive and significant. Some key examples:
In Memphis, 80% of surveyed officers either agreed or strongly agreed that the Insight training enhanced their ability to defuse the feelings of threat citizens have about their encounters with police officers.
In Memphis, every officer interviewed by the RVIP commented that they are making fewer arrests as a result of their Insight training.
Many audience members from the Memphis run who were surveyed responded that expanding the play's reach was an essential tool for community-police healing.
Kent said, “We pride ourselves here in Montclair, rightly, on the richness of our diversity. Still, reality informs us that though diverse, we're too often divided along many lines - socio-economic, racial, religious, generationally... The broader goal, starting with Uniform Justice and its specific aims, is to bring leaders, in the faith, civic, political, and other arenas together to work to make Montclair into a dynamic model of diversity with real unity that could serve as a model for all of New Jersey.”
Building on the successes of the trainings in Memphis and Lowell, Montclair aims to expand Insight training to the Montclair Police Department and surrounding police departments.
Williams wrote in an email to leaders, “I am trying to bring the program here, we'd be the first community in NJ to have it. Additionally, we were interviewed on http://www.toughjusticeddv.com/ the podcast is Uniform Justice, check it out.” There has been enthusiastic interest from those who attended.
Kent said, “We hope to be able to bring the Insight Policing Training here soon. She continued, “We also hope to present the play to the high school, with follow-up workshops for students, and also to present it to the community at large to promote more brainstorming.”