Maplewood saw a shockwave Tuesday night as Police Chief Robert Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummis were shown the door following months of complaints about how many young people of color were mistreated after last year’s fireworks event.
Officially, the Township Committee unanimously offered a vote of no confidence for Cimino, a 35-year department veteran and chief since 2000, then followed with a strong vote calling for his resignation and placement on paid leave.
The swift discipline came just four days after videos of police actions on July 5, 2016 -- which included pepper spraying of some youths and at least one kicked in the head -- were released to the public.
But the biggest anger for many came from the reports and police audio recordings that many African-American Maplewood youngsters were “corralled” toward the border with Irvington instead of being dispersed locally and allowed to remain in the township.
The idea that they were not allowed to return home or stay in their community was seen as unfair at best and racist at worst.
Township and police officials did not help their efforts by waiting more than a year to issue the police reports, audio and video of the evening in question despite months of requests from the press and public.
Township Committee members on Tuesday pointed to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which spent months reviewing the claims, then punted with a weak finding of not enough evidence to prove or disprove the complaints.
Community response last week was sharp and angry but peaceful when the evidence was finally released. The reaction began on social media with calls for protests and Cimino’s ouster within hours of the video and audio going public.
It all culminated Tuesday in something of a strange evening.
Due to circumstances of scheduling, events and breaking news, the Township saw the best and worst of its police department on display within a matter of hours, and within a few blocks that night.
The annual National Night Out was held in De Hart Park, with police on hand to speak with residents, promote community policing and answer questions. The usual hot dogs, pizza and entertainment were also seen.
But the goodwill and outreach could not mask the big issue on many minds that night: anger at unfair police behavior toward many people of color.
And the elephant in the room literally walked across the event in the form of some 100 protesters who peacefully marched in the park bearing signs and chants demanding justice and the chief’s resignation.
The group had gathered just blocks away at the Springfield Avenue gazebo and, after speeches and demands for change, marched to the park to make their case heard. Police escorts led them down the street and many of the cops on duty for National Night Out cleared the way so they could march through the park several times.
At one point the group sat down in front of the DJ offering music and even briefly took to the microphone to demand changes. Police likely knowing any effort to restrict them would backfire let them speak.
The most surprising moment might have been protesters using the police department’s own DJ microphone to call for the police chief to resign.
The protest then left the park and headed to the Maplewood police headquarters where the Township Committee was to hold its regular meeting. (Summer TC meetings are held there because the Town Hall chambers lacks air conditioning).
With a rare overflow crowd, the TC quickly denounced the video and issued their vote to see Cimino removed. They also heard from a consulting group recently hired to investigate police practices, which also asked members of the public to contact them with information.
A consultant’s report is expected by late September.
While the police leadership change may have been a bit abrupt and surprising to many, the cause behind it is not. Maplewood’s diversity is one of the town’s great assets and attractions, but an underlying friction has also existed for some.
Concerns about a racial divide at Columbia High School go back years with many students noting natural segregation often occurs.
Recent signs of disparity occurred in 2014 when the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights claiming minority students were being disciplined at an unfairly higher rate than white students and being denied advance placement as well.
That led to an agreement in which the district would implement several changes to the promotion and discipline policies and appoint a consultant to help implement them.
Then just last year a proposal to assign a police officer to Columbia High School was met with opposition from many students of color who said they did not trust the police. Several offered examples of what they contend was unfair and even racist treatment from cops.
But while many cheered Cimino’s pending departure at the TC meeting, it also raises concerns about the future of the department in other ways.
The next chief needs to not only create a department with zero tolerance for any kind of prejudicial or racially divided policing, but also one that can keep the township safe and protected.
Under Cimino, crime has consistently gone down and community policing has been a priority. The next chief needs to keep that positive effect going while also making sure that no resident or visitor feels unfairly treated or the target of any racial or other selective enforcement.
The way this situation played out with residents firmly, but peacefully calling for change and demanding rights be restored --and the township government acting swiftly to make those changes -- is a great reminder that the people can and must be heard.
Still, it is also time to take a breath on both sides and direct all energies toward the next step, helping the police to improve policies regarding youth and community fairness, healing the divide and anger that past actions have caused, and keeping our town as safe as it can be.
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