SOMERSET, NJ – The Franklin Township Police Department held a “Crossroads to Progress” virtual townhall last night that brought together community, political and law enforcement leaders to talk about policing in the township with a special focus on the police’s relations with Franklin’s African American community. 

First Baptist’s Rev. DeForest Soaries moderated the discussion that covered topics like police accountability and transparency, the public holding police and elected officials accountable and the effects of implicit bias. 

Franklin’s public safety director Quovella Spruill began with a quote from one of the country’s earliest Black abolitionists and social reformers, “In the words of Fredrick Douglass, ‘Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.’” She went on to say to those who have been protesting and speaking out will help police do their job better. 

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A two-way relationship between communities and the police department was a common theme. Panelists urged residents to file complaints on officers who they believe behave inappropriately and vote to hold elected officials accountable. 

“If there’s a problem we want you to make a report, we want you to file a complaint because we need to be paying attention to these interactions and if you’re not doing that we don’t know there’s a problem,” Councilwoman Crystal Pruitt said. “Let us know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong and continue to push us.” 

Township Prosecutor and Chairwoman of the Somerset Country Democratic Committee Black Caucus Tina Jalloh reminded those tuned in that even getting the right to vote was hard fought for African Americans and that right comes with tangible power. 

“Our ancestors have lost their lives fighting to vote, which includes economic freedom, political freedom,” she said. “We need to hold our elected official accountable, we have to vote.”

Spruill said that even though residents may not see immediate results from reporting issues with officers – admitting that sometimes it takes multiple complaints to prove wrongdoing – without documentation of each incident, it’s harder to hold problem officers to account. 

Under the new director’s leadership, the police department implemented an early warning system to flag troubling behavior and address it before it becomes a problem. This goes beyond police-community interactions to include overall officer wellness and well-being. 

“That early warning system looks at how cops interact with the community, how many times the cops have specific types of incidents,” she said. “It starts here, we know between these four walls what our officers need.” 

But for Jasmine Bonner, Franklin resident and an organizer of a protest in the township earlier this month, police accountability needs to come with transparency. 

“Where is the accountability, where is the ownership for the things that are going on today?” She said. 

Later in the discussion, when asked what she would do if she led the police department, Bonner said, “I would definitely work on the transparency of my position and the people that are under me by letting the community know that there are officers that have been put on suspension because of disciplinary problems, that there are officers that are impeccable officers and we’re going to honor them. That lets us know what’s going on in our own precinct and it shows that you’re willing to show the negative and the positive.” 

Bonner is leading a Juneteenth march this Saturday at Naaman Williams Park starting at noon. 

Sgt. Sean Hebbon, a long-time township cop and fixture in the community, is spearheading the department’s efforts to increase police-community interaction outside of the law enforcement context. He talked about initiatives like cadet training programs for township youth and adults to give an inside look at how cops operate, encouraging Franklin youth – particularly Black youth – to pursue law enforcement careers and having officers be more involved with the community. 

“A lot of people don’t realize what a good opportunity being a police officer is, especially for young men of color. They don’t realize the opportunities that are here in law enforcement and how you can get in young and build yourself in here. If you’re not happy with police departments that you’re seeing on TV, what better way to fix it than to be part of it and make the change from within,” he said. 

Hebbon also reflected on how being an African American police officer gives him a unique perspective, especially in light of the tension felt following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

“I think African American law enforcement officers have, in this particular circumstance, almost an advantage because we live in both sides of this world,” he said. “I don’t always have this uniform on. I understand some of the situations, some of the fears and some of the skepticism, some of the anger at law enforcement because I’ve been in places, I’ve had encounters on my way up to being the man I am today.

“I see the issue and a lot of it is understanding and communication … you have police officers that come in and work in a particular neighborhood that never grew up in a neighborhood like that, don’t live in a neighborhood like that, never related to some of the people in the neighborhood, whether it be African American or any other ethnicity or religious base or anything. If you don’t communicate you don’t know when you’re offending someone, you don’t know when you’re putting someone in a bad position or making them feel uncomfortable.”

Randal Pinkett, CEO of consulting firm BCT Partners, referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea that increasing contact points among diverse groups will lead to better understanding and less racial bias. He said that’s not happening enough now, with the United States being more segregated than it was in the 1970s. 

“Sadly many of us are not challenging ourselves and in the era of social media and social networking, we can create an entire world around us that only reinforces our own identity. And it’s only getting worse. I call it communities of the like-minded. So we have to break out of our communities of the like-minded so that we can have much better communities.” 

Among younger generations, Bonner said that there is a mix of discouragement and hope. Younger protesters are fighting the same fight their elders fought, but Bonner says there is a recognition that it’s not like it once was. 

“Our parents and grandparents and great grandparents have all dealt with a lot of the things we’re seeing right now so it’s a little discouraging that the fight is still on but I feel like we’re at a day and age as well that we know that it’s not as it was in the past,” she said. 

Soaries echoed her sentiment and told her “when I was your age, there were people protesting for the right to eat at a lunch counter. Today if someone told you ‘I’m going down to protest for the right to eat at a lunch counter’ you’d think they lost their minds. I look forward to the day when there are no more protests about police-community relations.”

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