MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The discussion of whether to disarm Maplewood’s volunteer Police Auxiliary will be taken up in the next 90 days, the Township Committee decided at its meeting last night, and the volunteers may not serve during that time.
The motion was passed unanimously after a public comment session that included more than 40 members of the public over an hour and a half, and then an hour-long discussion among the Township Committee members.
The unit had already been deactivated by order of Maplewood Police Chief Jim DeVaul so as not to put the volunteers in harm’s way during the coronavirus pandemic, but they have been responding to emergencies; the Township Committee passed a separate motion that prevents the Auxiliary’s use even in an emergency. Committee members Greg Lembrich and Nancy Adams dissented.
Passions ran high during public comment, which as usual was limited to three minutes per speaker. Stacy Thomas, who said she was a 40-year resident of Maplewood, said that although there has never been a use of force incident by an Auxiliary officer, “there doesn’t need to be an incident” before action is taken to disarm them. Having volunteer officers carrying weapons is a liability to the town, she said, and “this should be viewed as a public safety issue.”
At least a half dozen current and former Columbia High School students spoke in favor of disarming the Auxiliary. Recent graduate and South Orange resident Jordan Muhammad spoke on behalf of the Mapso Youth Coalition.
“We strongly believe it is in the interest of progress that the township disarm the Maplewood volunteer police force and at least 630 community members agree with us,” Muhammad said, referring to the signatures collected on a Coalition petition to the Township which included disarming the Auxiliary among other demands. “If we want to be a progressive town, we have to act like it. Not even the NYPD’s auxiliary police force is armed.”
Members of the Auxiliary also spoke. Shaun Chalk, a senior vice president at a global communications company, has been volunteering for the Auxiliary for 15 years. He noted that his service has included traffic posts in horrible weather during power outages and “I have personally helped save lives [and] confronted and captured suspects,” he said. “It brings me comfort that should a deadly threat present itself, I have the training and the ability to defend myself and potentially others and return safely to my family when my tour is over.”
Auxiliary Chief Joe Yacenda was staunch in his support of staying armed. “We are not using the weapons to intimidate or threaten citizens. It is a tool that is authorized by the state Attorney General, and a necessary tool based on the duties that are assigned by the Maplewood Police Department.”
During the Township Committee discussion, Lembrich asked Chief DeVaul for his professional opinion on the topic. DeVaul noted the tasks they do, such as traffic stops, and said, “Based on my over 30 years experience, we would not be able to disarm them and ask them to do the same things.”
On the topic of gun safety, DeVaul noted that there is a sign in and sign out procedure for their weapons and “they do not have permission to carry off-duty, nor do they take their service weapon home.”
Lembrich said that disarming the Auxiliary “is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.” He noted that the unit is “required to pass the same firearm certification as the regular officers” and receive the same use of force, racial bias, and deescalation trainings as well.
They are highly trained volunteers, different from others who serve their community. “This isn’t the Green Team, this isn’t the Garden Club,” Lembrich said.
Committee Member Dean Dafis said talks around disarming the unit “should be a collaborative conversation” with the community, and that such a discussion is a catalyst for guiding “what policing looks like in the future.”
Also passed during the marathon meeting, which started at 7:30 p.m. and went past midnight, was a resolution supporting bill S-2656, introduced by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) at the end of June. The bill would count internal affairs records, charges, transcripts of disciplinary hearings, body camera footage, and more as government records. As such, they would then be available for release under the state Open Public Records Act. Adams said it was important in the hiring process to know a police candidate’s record with a previous employer.
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