MAPLEWOOD, NJ - The South Orange / Maplewood Community Coalition on Race held its latest in a series of “Coffee House Discussions” at the Woodland venue in Maplewood on September 19.  The topic concerned whether or not to call the police when seeing something suspicious or wrong in their neighborhoods.  Sparked by recent incidents of residents of both South Orange and Maplewood calling the police due to perceived suspicious activity, the discussion was meant to determine how much racial bias is involved.  The forum explored the possibilty of racially based assumptions about people that cause suspicions, the use and misuse of social media in these cases, and the criteria for making calls.  Maplewood Police Chief James DeVaul, Maplewood Lieutenant Niheema Malloy, and South Orange Police Sergeant Adrian Acevedo attended.

Participants were divided in separate groups, and Community Coalition on Race trustee David Harris urged the Maplewood and South Orange residents to share personal experience and exchange ideas.  In one group, led by Community Coalition on Race trustee Barbara Velazquez, comprised entirely of Maplewood residents, participants expressed their pride in Maplewood and said they hoped to come up with ideas on how to improve race issues.  Trustee Velazquez expressed her own pride in the town.  “We don’t gloss over things that happen,” she said.  “We face them head-on and deal with them and address them.”

Resident Brian Finnerty said that he had recently called the police regarding suspicious behavior along his own street, recalling that his Ring video doorbell service caught people trying to get into parked cars but not attempting to break in after finding the doors locked.  He felt it was appropriate to send the police his video, but he also feared that the overuse of video footage on social media can lead to overheated reactions from local resident. Saying that sometimes things are not as suspicious as originally thought.  Trustee Velazquez asked that we update the information regarding her phoneing the police when they lived in a townhouse apartent in Maplewood in the 1990's. Here are her words regaring the event: "We were sharing stories of when we had called the police, this was the first group exercise that were had been given by the organizers. I shared an event that took place in Maplewood in the 1990's. At the time I lived in a townhouse apartment.. Around 2 am I was awakened by a barking dog. I looked out my window and saw a woman, a stranger, leading a dog into my garage. I thought my car was about to be stolen so I called the police. I think I had a legitimate reason to be alarmed. It turned out that someone who had been hired by the landlord to work on the townhouse next door was also sleeping in the townhouse. He also had his girlfriend sleep there as well, this was the woman with the dog. We did recognize the man as the hired worker, but did not know he was sleeping in the apartment.  While my car was not in danger, the article makes it sound like I made a frivolous call. If you see someone you don't know around your garage at two in the morning, I think it is understandable to be alarmed. I think the point of the story was that sometimes there really are legitimate reasons for calling the police and everyone at the table shared a legitimate reason and not a biased reason".  While these examples didn’t necessarily involve race or bias, they admitted that it is sometimes necessary to second-guess suspicions.  

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Resident Kate McCaffrey recalled a time when she called the police when her house alarm went off when a young woman attempted to break in, but while the police responded, she was concerned about their heavy-handed response, having pulled guns on the assailant.  She was uncertain over how to react in a case like this.  “I don’t want to escalate the situation,” she said.

The group agreed that people should be more careful to report any suspicious behavior, and not to jump the gun.  Trustee Velazquez said that people had to question their own biases and ask themselves if they would call if the suspicious person was not a person of color, or if it was not a woman, as two examples.  Jackie DeLuca, another participant in the group, said it was essential to get to know neighbors better, and use better communication – with Finnerty warning about how social media can be used to shame people innocent of any wrongdoing.  The group also expressed the belief that the police should respond in kind by getting to know the locals on their beats.

Chief DeVaul, Lieutenant Malloy and Sergeant Acevedo answered questions from the participants about how the police handled such issues.  Chief DeVaul said that, in dealing with calls reporting suspicious behavior, he wants the police to be more sensitive in situations instigated by suspicious calls. To that end, he has pushed for better training and greater transparency in his department.  Both he and Lieutenant Malloy agreed that, to avoid appearances of racial bias, residents should analyze the behavior of the person more than the person, lest the police send an officer to deal with people who are not engaged in any sort of illicit behavior.  Lieutenant Malloy also said that callers should add as much information as possible about a suspect.

“To get all that extra information really helps us before we get to the situation,” she explained.

Residents were still concerned about how police reacted to some situations, like recently when a man was accosted by police for acting in a suspicious manner when he was only looking for his cat. Trustee Harris, who is black, pointed out that his own son was once stopped by Maplewood police and was still traumatized over the way he was treated.  South Orange Police Sergeant Acevedo acknowledged that most of the 372 calls of suspicion his department received in the previous year led to written reports, but he noted that none of the suspicious activities his department investigated led to incidents that went out of control.  Many people in the discussion were still dissatisfied over how so many of these calls were not legitimate complaints, and one local resident said that a lot of the people investigated due to calls of suspicion were black men minding their own business.

Sergeant Acevedo said that he wasn’t going to assume that all of the people investigated per calls of suspicion were people of color, but he did stress that the police always try to make amends with wrongfully accused suspects once they are cleared, explaining the situation to them and why they were questioned by the police.  “If an apology is warranted, an apology will happen,” he said.  In response to situations like the three police cars that showed up in responds to the man looking for his cat, he added that the police use extra precautions based on uncertainty over the situation.  “Sometimes, depending on how the call comes in,” he said, “you might get a response of three cars because you’re preparing for something that might happen or might be.”

Audrey Rowe, the Community Coalition on Race’s program director, thanked everyone for their participation at the end of the forum and urged residents to continue the dialogue going forward.