BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ --The Berkeley Heights Diversity Council hosted a Listening Session with the BH Police Department on Wednesday, July 1. There was a great turnout – in addition to the Chief of Police and Lieutenant Jason Massimino and Sergeant Ed Gaffney, attendees included the President of the Board of Ed, the Superintendent of BH Schools, members of the Town Council and over 60 residents. We are thrilled with the turnout and are grateful for the honest and very informative discussion.
The Berkeley Heights Diversity Council is excited and energized to be kicking off this very important dialogue across our community, our police and our schools. We are hopeful that this dialogue will lead to change as we move forward together towards the shared goal of making Berkeley Heights the most welcoming town in New Jersey.
The BHPD first provided some information about topics selected by the BHDC based on feedback and input from the community, then residents had an opportunity to raise additional questions and concerns. While some questions were answered on the spot, the purpose of this listening session was for the BHPD to hear resident concerns and then be given the opportunity to provide thoughtful answers. Some important topics were raised and discussed; we have provided the summary of the discussion and questions raised below to the BHPD as well as the BOE and School Superintendent. The BHDC will work with these organizations to communicate their answers provided to the questions raised during BHDC forums.
Summary of discussion and questions/concerns raised by residents:
The Blue Line on Park Ave.
The BHPD provided some background about the meaning behind the blue line painted on Park Avenue. This was done as a voluntary gesture of support by the head of the DPW in 2016, and the BHPD saw it as a nice gesture. Residents have since raised concerns about the perception of this line. The Chief pointed out that it is important to listen to residents and that Park Avenue will become the center of town once the new Municipal Complex opens. The other police officers on the call said that if it is not welcoming or if even one resident feels unsafe just get rid of it. As we all know, within one week of this session the BHPD proved that they heard these concerns by announcing that they will remove this line. They published a letter to the community with this announcement and they also asked for community input to find a different way to honor our Police Department’s commitment to this community.
BH Police Officer Training
The Chief gave an overview of the training that the officers go through including deescalation, implicit bias, crisis intervention and working with various populations (i.e. religious, differently abled, trans-gender) in the community. He also mentioned that licensing of police officers will be required in the state of NJ in the near future, and he feels that this framework will be helpful in developing and implementing ongoing training.
There was some discussion specifically about racial issues within the BHPD. A resident mentioned the example of incidents in Mountainside, and asked how the BHPD measures the effectiveness of bias training and reported incidents of bias. In response to a question about how racial incidents are handled here, the BHPD explained that any reported racial incidents go straight to the Prosecutor’s Office and Internal Affairs for review.
A concern was raised about the perception that people of color are stopped by police more often than white people and a resident asked if these statistics are tracked. The BHPD noted that as context it is important to remember that people travel through our town who aren’t residents which impacts the statistics comparing the race of people pulled over compared to Berkeley Heights’ demographics.
In response to a resident question about the BHPD’s comfort with discussing racial issues, the Chief said that his department is willing to have uncomfortable conversations.
Diversity in the BHPD Hiring Practices
The Chief outlined their recruiting practices including a list of some very specific qualifications including a college degree or specific equivalents. A resident asked if the restrictions can be loosened to achieve more diversity in the police force. The Chief stated that the college degree requirement was determined by town ordinance in 2014 and he likes the standards as they help ensure quality candidates. He also mentioned a study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported in NJ.com that there are some indications that those who have 4 year degrees may use less force. He did agree to look into how to increase diversity in the candidate pool.
BHPD in the Schools
The BHPD emphasized that the police officers are in the schools strictly to keep the kids safe. They do not get involved in student discipline - that is handled by school administration. Dr. Varley, Superintendent of schools, also explained that parents are included in all serious disciplinary issues.
The BHPD and the Superintendent also both stated that they feel that having the police officers visible in the schools helps to foster a positive relationship between them and the children. It was brought to the Chief’s attention that some parents have publicly complained that police have gotten involved in student discipline. The Chief stated that he has never received such a complaint. The BHDC believes that further discussion and education appears to be needed to address questions and concerns from the community about police officers in the schools.
The BHPD explained the difference between a Class 3 officer who is there for security and a School Resource Officer (SRO) who participates in certain educational programs as well as provides security. The BHDC has asked the BHPD to provide more education about Class 3 and SROs.
School Safety Committee
Doug Reinstein, President of the BOE, explained that the School Safety Committees were originally created to address HIB issues, but after parent feedback the scope was expanded to include feedback on police related issues. These committees originally included one parent volunteer and have been increased to 2 for next year. Parents can volunteer for these committees by speaking to their PTO representatives or school principal.
Questions Raised by Residents - Provided to BHPD for Follow-up:
- How does the BHPD ensure all officers are receiving bias training and how do they measure the effectiveness of this training? Would the BHPD be willing to have external oversight such as a citizen review board?
- What are the statistics around the race of people who are pulled over in town?
- What is changing in the way training is conducted given the current environment?
- What can be done to achieve more diversity in the police force?
Questions/Requests Raised by Residents - Provided to BHPD, BOE and BH Superintendent for Follow-Up:
- The format and purpose of the School Safety Committee are unclear. What can be done to clarify this for the public?
- What are the differences between the role of the Class 3 and SRO officers in the schools?
- Members of the community would like the BOE and BHPD to share data about how the presence and effectiveness of BHPD police officers in schools is currently managed. The BHPD stated that they will provide statistics. The BHPD and BOE need to determine the best way to implement this as a matter of protocol.
The BHDC would like to thank everyone who joined the BHPD Listening Session. We will continue to work with the BHPD, BOE and Superintendent Dr. Varley to provide answers to the questions raised by residents, and continue our established regular and open dialogue with these groups to continue to address these and other issues as they arise.
Please watch for, and invite friends to attend, upcoming BHDC listening sessions. In addition, the BHDC is working on a community survey and more follow ups from the great input we’ve received from residents.
The goal of the BHDC is to host Listening Sessions that offer a pathway of communication to allow all members of the community to be heard in a safe space.
Please stay connected to the BHDC by signing up for our emails.
The Berkeley Heights Diversity Council was founded to honor and embrace the diverse cultures and perspectives within Berkeley Heights. Our goal is to spread awareness and inclusion.
The BHDC is open and welcoming to all who reside in Berkeley Heights wishing to celebrate the diversity of our great town together and can be reached at BHdiversity@gmail.com