SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ – The June 24 installment of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Committee “Listening Tour” focused on the community's views of police relations with people of color.
Several young black women recounted their experiences with the police, including incidents during which they claimed police pulled them over for what they said were illegitimate reasons and questioned their residency.
Tayonna Lee, a Scotch Plains resident and a student at Kean University, said that "right now is a time of reform."
"There has always been a sense of separate between police and people," Lee said. "Is it retaliation that cops can sometimes be wrong? Why do cops feel attacked that people say they are scared?"
Tierra Buissereth, a 2019 SPFHS alumn and a current student at the University of Southern California, said she feels that she has been followed for no reason.
"My dad told me he had been followed every night driving home from work, not doing anything," Buissereth said.
The young adults expressed feeling intimidated by police when the officers speak with their hands on their guns. Additionally, they said that officers harshly question black residents when they call for help.
"The feeling you get when you see blue lights flash behind your car is a different feeling as an African American... you feel a sense of intimidation," Lee said.
Scotch Plains police chief Ted Conley and Fanwood police chief Richard Trigo, along with Scotch Plains-Fanwood HS's special reserve officer Richard Hernandez were participants on the call.
Chief Conley told participants that his officers "are not robots" and that during traffic stops, especially in this heightened environment of racial animosity, they "are scared, too."
"We keep our hands on our guns because that would save a second in responding (in case they are attacked by gunfire)," said Chief Conley who said that as the only Asian family in his community while growing up, he encountered bias.
"I can understand," he told them, adding that "we (police officers) need to be the adults in the room."
Chief Conley also said that while it is not likely to happen any time soon, he would love to hand his handcuffs to a suspect who has been apprehended and have them put the cuffs on themselves. "We would rather do that. We don't want to fight, we don't want to wrestle. We are human. It's okay to be cautious. We have protocols and precautions."
Fanwood Chief Trigo said "it pains my heart" hear about the instances the young women described, especially because members of the community say they are afraid to call the police when they need help.
"I find that very troubling," said Chief Trigo, who offered to meet with members of the community in his office. "We are there to protect you and to serve you. That's what we signed up for."
"I hear you, understand you, I am behind you on training increasing bias and multicultural training for the police," he said. "I take pride in keeping my door open. I'll meet with people any time. Being chief is not a 9-5 job."
"I'm glad to educate myself, too," Chief Trigo said as he recounted attending last year's Juneteenth celebration and feeling awkward about being asked to speak because he knew very little about the day and its significance. "I had never heard of it, I was embarrassed. We need to promote education about different races."
The participants from the black community are pushing for change. ("This is not a moment, it's a movement.") They expressed their feelings of intimidation and beliefs that they are questioned harder than their white counterparts about who they are, where they live, and what they are doing.
During the online presentation, viewers could post their comments.
Tanisha McGriff: I think that will be helpful if we had more community engagement programs with police.
Ashley Corin: I love baking and cooking often more than I eat and have thought about dropping it off to our local police and fire departments, but there is no real welcoming feel when walking into either establishment, so I always feel like I’d be more of a bother than appreciated.
Neyda Fernandez-Evans: What do you say to a police officer saying they stopped you for a headlight that is out when there isn't?
Zizi Neerg: It’s easy to provide the set of rules however what do we do when we are stopped?
Johnson Shanda: What can we do to help with the planning of community events? You will need input for youth and adults.
Sharon Stroye: There will be a community and policing discussion for adults/residents to get involved.
Neyda Fernandez-Evans: Ideas to help the community to get to know the police...breakfast with the police, like breakfast with Santa, or a basketball game parents vs. police.
Ashley Corin: If police policing police (internal investigations) has proven not to work, what can be done differently to ensure all policies and procedures are followed? Perhaps hiring or including a civilian committee to ensure checks and balances mentioned earlier is a very good idea in moving forward...our government is run by checks and balances, perhaps the police force should be handled the same.
To watch the recording of the video, click the Fanwood's Facebook Livestream.
TRHT was created in 2019 by resolutions passed by the Scotch Plains and Fanwood Councils, in partnership with the Board of Education, Rutgers University-Newark, and Social Justice Matters (SJM), a local organization of community members founded 11 years ago to advance discussions on race in our towns. TRHT members are Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith, Scotch Plains-Fanwood SPFK12 Superintendent Dr. Joan Mast, Rabbi Joel Abraham, Leland S. McGee, Sharon Stroye, Joan Peters, Fanwood Councilwoman Erin McElroy-Barker, Scotch Plains Councilman Roshan White, Jill Jackson Jones, Rev. Susanna Cates, and Amy Winkler and Stephanie Suriani.
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