BLOOMFIELD, NJ--On October 13th, the Township of Bloomfield hosted a discussion with Director of Public Safety Samuel DeMaio on the topic of community policing. Following up from an earlier community discussion this summer, this session touched on a wide range of issues, primarily the Township police department’s community policing initiatives, as well as addressing the increased focus on police and race.
In attendance on the Zoom call were Mayor Michael Venezia, Councilwoman Davis, Councilwoman Mundell and Bloomfield residents, who were given the opportunity to ask questions of their elected officials and DeMaio.
The call started with a discussion on the investment the Township police department has made in connecting with the community in recent years.
“We’re always looking for something new, a new connection with the community, and working so hard to change the culture of this agency over the past years,” said DeMaio. “Anything we can possibly do that’s present right now, the Mayor and Council have given us the funding to do that, to make us a great police department.”
DeMaio covered initiatives such as the Youth Academy, which has given more than 400 Bloomfield children the opportunity to spend the summer as part of an interactive police academy; the Coffee/Pizza with a Cop series; and community bike rides to help improve communication and camaraderie with Township residents.
The issue of race and policing was a key theme of the night, with DeMaio outlining the steps Bloomfield police have taken - and are currently taking - to address these concerns.
“We’re doing things in the area of racial diversity where we’re collecting data that nobody else is collecting,” said DeMaio. “Every one of our stops - our motor vehicle stops - we collect the racial data, we examine it, and it becomes an indicator for us to see if maybe there’s a potential problem somewhere with one of our police officers.”
Bloomfield, DeMaio noted, will be partnering with the Rutgers Police Institute - recent recipients of a $300,000 grant from PSE&G - to evaluate the Township’s current police data and identify areas for improvement. In addition to the biannual anti-bias training, officers will also be undergoing training to recognize and address implicit bias and diversity awareness, identify stereotypes which can impact the relationship between police and the community, and more effectively engage with diverse communities.
“We want to embed in our officers as much as we possibly can that this is the way you’re going to behave, this is what we’re going to expect from you, this is what the Mayor and Council demand, and if you operate outside of the parameters that we’re telling you, then discipline will come after that,” said DeMaio.
DeMaio did take issue with a recent community blog post analyzing data on the number of motor vehicle stops by the top ten officers in Bloomfield, and deeming those stops to be instances of racial profiling.
“Other things need to be looked at other than just how many stops they make,” said DeMaio. “What area of the town is the officer working in? What is the crime detail that they’re working? Are there any other complaints against that officer that would be similar to that? What are they’re arrests like - are they arresting an inordinate amount of a certain race? Are their field inquiries on an inordinate amount of a certain race? That may not be what was done with this blog, but that’s what we do as a police department.”
He noted the department’s internal affairs unit takes these data and watches body camera footage to evaluate how officers are treating each stop. DeMaio noted later in the session that reports or concerns about officers can be made in-person or anonymously, and an investigation into the incident will be opened.
Bloomfield is one of a “very small percentage of police departments across the country” to collect racial data, but DeMaio cautioned that such data can be misinterpreted and portray the department in a negative light. However, Councilwoman-at-Large Dr. Wartyna Davis asserted that there is a value in collecting racial data the way Bloomfield does, and recommends these data be collected in surrounding communities as well, which could help with comparative analysis and knowledge-sharing across towns and regions.
“These kinds of conversations are so important,” said Dr. Davis. “We pride ourselves in Bloomfield as being a community in which people are actively engaged in making our community better; we are committed to dealing with the tough conversations that are so necessary to be able to move forward. So often we’ve seen people sort of tend to work in echo chambers. We tend to be closest with those who share our political ideology, and what’s needed is the opportunity for dialogue and understanding.”
DeMaio agreed: “I’ve been in this business for 34 years. Easy conversations don’t get anything done. It’s the hard conversations and hard work that get things done.”
Additional topics of discussion included the police department’s strict emphasis on using less-than-lethal force; the process for handling mental/emotional health calls, including training which DeMaio notes has resulted in a sharp decrease in force being used during such calls; options for reporting issues or concerns about specific officers; and the process for requesting new crosswalks and speed bumps in residential areas.
A recording of the session may be found on the Township of Bloomfield Facebook page.