UNION COUNTY, NJ - Police use of force, deescalation training, and law enforcement officers’ broader roles in communities they serve are all part of a local dialogue that comes amid national calls for reform in policing.
At a virtual panel discussion on July 29, Union County law enforcement experts answered pre-submitted questions on use of force policies and discussed how to better them.
The session followed state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s announcement that New Jersey would be revising its use of force policy for the first time in two decades and hosting listening sessions on policing in all of New Jersey’s 21 counties in conjunction with county prosecutors’ offices.
“This unprecedented moment that we all find ourselves in requires us to question how we do what we do, scrutinize how we measure success in this field and re-examine the role of law enforcement in society,” said acting Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo, who moderated the conversation.
The panelists, with years of law enforcement experience, detailed use of force policies — the types of force permitted, when they are used and how force reports are filed.
Panelists also looked deeper into how departments can improve policing by better connecting with the communities they serve. One concept was how police ought to fundamentally view themselves -- as crime fighters or servants of the community?
“How we perceive ourselves has an effect on how the public sees us as well,” said Director of County-Wide Police Policy Jonathan Parham. “So if we don't perceive ourselves as part of the community, or we don’t see ourselves as guardians of the community, we paint ourselves as outsiders [implementing] force or law onto the community. Then we should not be surprised if people are not happy to see us.”
The panel also proposed policies and training which could better law enforcement. Ideas ranged from more deescalation training, which is currently optional with half a day of training for police recruits, and an emphasis on mental health training.
The conversation on policing follows protests across the state and nation, including in Union County, during which protestors have called for extensive police reform.
At the panel discussion, Linden’s police chief discussed training to help officers handle people with mental illness.
“We’re going be the first town in Union County to mandate all our officers, from myself right on down to a junior officer either have CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] training or One Mind campaign training, which is a one-day mental health mandatory training,” said Linden Police Chief David Hart.
While the group collectively agreed that there were elements to improve, they refrained from referring to police monolithically.
“There are people that should not be police officers,” Parham said. “However, there are tons of cops that do the right thing and feel the brunt and weight of those bad cops.”
Neither the panelists nor Ruotolo addressed allegations of police misconduct in Clark and Hillside that have led to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office taking over those police departments.
Despite the current issues in departments and the rising negative attitudes on policing, the group emphasized the symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the public they serve.
“The police need the community and the community needs us,” Hart said.
He added: “There’s always room for improvement.”
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office will continue to accept feedback on the topic of use-of-force via email firstname.lastname@example.org, officials said.
The state Office of the Attorney General will be accepting feedback on police use of force via an online portal at https://nj.gov/oag/force/ Aug. 21. The attorney general’s office said it plans to issue a revised statewide use-of-force policy by the end of 2020.