(ESSEX COUNTY, NJ) - In response to police brutality and systematic racism, the United States has erupted with protesters declaring BLACK LIVES MATTER. Arguably, the most pleasantly surprising group to join the cry for justice is law enforcement themselves. Through the direction of Acting-Essex County Prosecutor, Theodore “Ted” Stephens II, the latest to join the movement is the Essex County Prosecutors Office (ECPO). On July 15, 2020, the ECPO hosted a Use of Force Town Hall Meeting for the public.
“100% of the law enforcement agencies in Essex County, within one year of today, will have body cameras and dash cams,” Acting Prosecutor Stephens promised. Stephens also said, the ECPO will “put in written policies to ensure the current goodwill becomes the law of the land because trust alone is not enough."
The Town Hall focused on police policies that need to be updated to smoke out intentional and unintentional biases from the entire criminal justice system. As stated by Acting-Prosecutor Stephens, the forum was also to “explore the use of force in the busiest and most diverse county in New Jersey.”
Acting-Prosecutor Stephens opened up with remarks about trust. “It is hard to trust when all you have from the past is evidence as to why you should not trust someone. The sobering reality is that many Americans just do not have a high level of trust in the justice system. For years our justice system has faced many challenges, but the whole system is really depending on trust.”
Highlighting the equal relationship between law enforcement and the community, Stephens said, “Without the public’s help, it is impossible for law enforcement to solve crimes, have juries, and promote compliance with court orders. Similarly, the police must trust the citizens will aid in the process and ensure the needs of crime victims are properly addressed…now the key to enhancing the level of trust amongst officers, police departments, in general, directly depends on the interaction with the officer and the community at large. [If] the officer shows up, shows respect for the individual, gives the individual an opportunity to speak, then that goes a long way…But it is not a one-way street; it is a two-way street. The community’s obligation is first to give the officer a chance, not to prejudge the interaction the minute the officer gets out of the car. Gotta give them a chance to show they are going to do the right thing.”
The Acting prosecutor concluded his remarks by talking about being black in America. “As has happened to me, has been my experience…Every black person attending this town hall has had the experience of some racial discrimination. If not them, maybe as far as one degree of separation… But irrespective of whether or not you are black or not, or spared the indignity of having to deal with racial discrimination. If you believe in the creed of the ECPO which is justice… ‘Do Justice, Seek Justice, and Serve Justice’ then you will agree with me on three things: One, what happened to George Floyd was a homicide. Two, the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement is righteous. Three, we, who are here trying to effect this policy in a positive way, do so at a time because we have the opportunity. We are in a privileged position to effect a lasting change that our ancestors could have only hoped to have been in a position to do.”
Later in the program, it was stated that it had been 20 years since New Jersey’s use-of-force policies have changed.
Over the years, State lawmakers have forced the issue, changes have begun to occur, and some signed into law. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, a guest at the Town Hall, promised to make some more changes.
A few other highlights from the town-hall were about solutions to the long-time nationwide issue of biases and use of force:
Acting Prosecutor Stephens spoke of hiring from within the community being served, “we need to look at the type of individuals we are recruiting to come in to be a police officer. Maybe less militaristic, more form the community and a different skill set,”
Mitchel McGuire, Chief of Detectives for the ECPO, spoke of training “to make part of the curriculum for new officers, community engagement, community understanding, cultural understanding.”
Assistant Prosecutor Alex Albu, suggested more on the job training for defensive tactics, chases, and use of force in general. Officers now are only given 40 hours of training. “That’s 40 hours of hands-on training, but then potentially a 30-year career after that. So, is 40 hours enough for 30 years? The attorney general doesn’t think so. We don’t think so.”
Pamela McCauley spoke of the mission and job of the ECPO as the Victim Witness Coordinator.
Lt. Colonel Geoffrey Noble of the New Jersey State Police spoke of the culture of police needing to change in order for biases to disappear.
The town hall was open to the public for questions. The first was about if systematic racism and will it ever end. Acting Prosecutor Stephens replied, “so, I think, will it ever stop? I’d be optimistic to say, ‘Yes.’ But we have to deal with underlying problems first.”
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