MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood Township hosted a virtual community meeting Tuesday evening to address unconscious biases against Black youth with police and community relations.
Panelists included members of Valley Arts NJ, the Maplewood Community Board on Police, the Teen Librarian at the Maplewood Memorial Library, and Maplewood Police Officers of varying ranks.
Emily Witkowski, Teen Librarian at the Maplewood Library, shared some recorded conversations that she had with a group of black teens from Maplewood. They talked about their personal experiences with police in Maplewood and how those experiences inform how they view police officers.
“To be honest,” one girl told Witkowski, “it’s not like we can do anything — it’s when white people speak up because they have the privilege. We can just scream, we can just show them that we’re angry, we can show them that we’re mad; but white people actually have the privilege to change something.”
A common thread among the kids was that even though they have had some positive individual experiences with Maplewood police it has not been enough to squash the fear they feel when they see an officer approaching them. One officer that the teens recognized for consistently making them feel protected and heard was Juvenile Detective Steven Gyimoty.
Det. Gyimoty was on the panel to speak about his experiences and goals for community policing in Maplewood. He spoke about his personal experiences with police as a youth and how that led him to becoming an officer himself.
The meeting began with a presentation from CBP member Paul Williams. He presented statistics on how little people of different races interact with one another and pointed out how this can breed ignorance. Williams also recognized that even in Maplewood — a much more diverse community than most — some of these issues continue to persist.
All the officers on the panel stressed the need for education on when to call the police. The officers pointed out that they are regularly receiving calls about suspicious people in the neighborhoods. Many times they have found the suspicious person to be doing nothing wrong. One way that Maplewood police are trying to mitigate these situations from turning negative is by only collecting information when they deem necessary. While this approach reduces the number of negative interactions, the police are still having to respond to large numbers of suspicious person calls.
“It’s really helpful to take the word 'suspicion' out of it and have people just describe behaviors,” said Captain Niheema Malloy. “Don’t think about things as suspicious or not, what we really need legally to take any type of police action is behavior. Just tell us exactly what you see.”
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