HACKENSACK, NJ - Two initiatives designed to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and Bergen County residents through engagement was announced by Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella. The initiatives include the creation of the Community Engagement Task Force and the expansion of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office’s Community Affairs Unit to a Community Engagement Division.
The Community Engagement Task Force (“CETF”), a network of police officers throughout Bergen County, is intended to expand this work into local communities and police departments. The Task Force will share ideas, best practices, and work collaboratively to strengthen law enforcement’s relationship with their communities.
The Task Force model also allows law enforcement to provide more prevention and education programs to Bergen County schools and communities. Law enforcement agencies will partner on programs like the Law Enforcement Community Affairs Program, in which youth learn about interactions with law enforcement and are encouraged to ask questions and provide feedback to police. The Task Force creates opportunities for community engagement in creative ways, such as the current Youth Essay Contest, in which local police departments are soliciting essays from youth on the topic: “Why is it important for members of the community to engage with local police departments?”
Members of the CETF have also served their communities by ensuring that residents have access to food and resources. In response to the current food insecurity crisis, the BCPO, CETF and Bergen County Sheriff’s Office, have partnered with Center for Food Action to distribute perishable food boxes to individuals and families throughout Bergen County who are homebound and unable to access healthy food.
As the BCPO increasingly invests in programs and community partnerships intended to prevent crime and reduce recidivism, the Community Affairs Unit has been expanded into a Community Engagement Division (“CED”), including personnel who will manage a recently awarded $1.2 million Department of Justice grant for a strategic opioid response and grants and programs intended to prevent school violence and address youth mental health, as well as work to improve connections between the criminal justice system and systems that provide community support such as mental health, housing, and employment.
One core function of the CED will be to foster a productive dialogue with members of the community. As a result of listening sessions conducted during the summer of 2020, the BCPO modified its police recruit training to build empathy among new officers through candid conversations with community members about race and religion. In addition to recognizing a need for officer wellness, the BCPO has also prioritized resiliency awareness, training, and support programs for both police recruits and active law enforcement officers. This support includes inviting additional chaplains from a variety of communities and faith groups to help train and support law enforcement across the County.
Since 2017, the BCPO’s Community Affairs Unit has coordinated educational presentations for schools and community groups on topics ranging from the dangers of opioids to internet safety, fostered relationships with clergy and community leaders across the County, and developed new law enforcement initiatives intended to direct individuals battling addiction and mental health issues to services and support.
“Strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and the communities they serve are critical to effective policing and public safety,” stated Prosecutor Musella. “It is through engagement, not simply a presence in our communities, that we build firm, sustainable relationships.”
Residents can follow the BCPO’s community engagement efforts on its newly launched website www.bcpo.net and on social media @BCPONJ.