MONTCLAIR, NJ - Montclair residents packed into the Salvation Army Citadel to discuss policing practices with law enforcement officials.
The lengthy discussion spanned over two hours, beyond the allotted time frame, and allowed residents to voice their concerns with policing practices in Montclair while Montclair police leaders were on hand to respond to concerns and also offer insight from a police perspective.
Mayor Robert Jackson was among the leaders present who addressed the crowd. He spoke of Montclair police officials participating in meetings held across the state to discuss the recent national tensions between law enforcement and African-Americans regarding policing practices saying that Montclair has repeatedly been at the forefront and sometimes is the most represented town during those discussions. Jackson said, "I do think that we have an unusual fervor...to try to do things the right way."
The law enforcement panelists included Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti, Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, Deputy Chiefs Tracy Frazzano and Wilhelm Young, and Acting Lt. Tyrone Williams. Several other officers were also represented in the audience and provided insight when clarity was needed.
"Our officers aren't perfect and I'm not perfect either, but I can say... and truly believe we have the finest police department in Essex County," he added.
Concerns raised by residents were racial profiling, excessive force and public perception of the way African-American children are being treated by police in the town. One-by-one, residents expressed their frustration throughout the evening, calling for de-escalation training, the return of the Conversations on Race program, Undoing Racism program and additional diversity training for officers.
Montclair police leaders expressed that they have been at the forefront of training officers in areas such as empathy, de-escalation or dealing with people who suffer from mental illness, and state that they will continue the practice.
Councilor Robert Russo raised the concern about the need to protect people who may be demonstrating or gathering in public places. He also spoke of concerns with racial profiling and excessive force being used. "We have too many young black men being killed by police."
Russo then referenced the concern for the safety of police officers. "Now we're faced with shooters, as we saw in the last two weeks, killing police officers." Referencing tragedies happening in France and other places around the world, as well as what is happening in America, Russo added, "I cannot believe what we're seeing."
"How do we protect our citizens when gathering in public places?" He said.
Conforti stated that information sharing is key to catching a plot to do harm before a horrific incident occurs. "We receive a lot of information from the prosecutor's office, Attorney General's Office..." and other sources to inform them of any leads on potential situations. "From our standpoint in Montclair, training is very important." He spoke of active shooter training for officers to be prepared for a crisis situation.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Dr. Renee Baskerville voiced concerns "As we take a look at the people we have representing..." We have had to fight relentlessly for years to have the diversity that we have." As she spoke of the first female Deputy Chief and African-American Deputy Chief, Baskerville cautioned residents to not become complacent.
She suggested a civilian police review board in Montclair. "We don't want to wait until we need them, we want to have those things in place proactively." Baskerville then called for community stakeholder input into the interviewing of potential police officers.
She stated that the diversity training for officers would be a way to help officers to reflect upon what they can do to heal.
Baskerville also called for gun reform. "We must get weapons of mass destruction off of our street." She continued, "We must demand annual mental fitness evaluations for all of our officers... and citizens who have a license to carry." Both statements were met with a rousing applause.
The meeting continued with residents, one-by-one standing to express their personal experiences with officers in Montclair, with some pleasant and unpleasant stories shared.
An 81-year old African-American resident stood and informed Officer Ben Campos that he had stopped her when she was clearly in the wrong. He became visibly tensed when she began to tell of the experience, however, he breathed a sigh of relief when she said, "You were so pleasant." Campos and the audience burst into laughter at his relief. She went on to explain that she had run a red light and was stopped. She explained to Campos that she realized her error and then Campos forgivingly escorted her to her destination without issuing a ticket for the violation.
Many in the audience expressed that this was a perfect example of community policing that should continue in Montclair and around the country, where people are seen as human beings and treated fairly by law enforcement.
When Jackson addressed the crowd earlier in the program, he spoke of the community meetings held by the council people around town as an opportunity for people to come together regularly and voice their concerns at the onset. He also highlighted the diversity of the audience in race, age and socioeconomic factors and stated that he was pleased that so many people thought it was an important topic to come together to discuss.
"Look at this audience, you don't get this everywhere," Jackson beamed. "I think we're trying to do the right thing. I think we'll get there."