WAYNE, NJ – Organizers of the Wayne Black Lives Matter protest spoke up during this week’s Wayne Town Council meeting saying that Wayne has a “race problem.” They then asked why Wayne’s government officials haven’t taken any step to address what they claim to be true. Several council members responded, defending the township’s stance against racism.

During the public comments portion of the meeting BLM organizers and former Wayne Valley High School student Timmy Thompson spoke first: “It concerns me that my friends and I can investigate Wayne for a month and a half, whether from reading articles, filing OPRA reports or simply talking to people, and see what the Wayne elected town officials have not seemed to acknowledge yet - that Wayne has a race problem that needs to be addressed.”

Marisa Budnick stated it this way: “Our team has been meeting with officials and doing a lot of research on how we can make this town a better place; how we can bring to light a deep-seated racism while also figuring out ways we can enact effective change.”

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Both asked why Wayne hasn’t publicly stated that Black Lives Matter. “Why has the Wayne council not published a statement saying that ‘Black Lives Matter,’” asked Thompson. “This is the time to be specific and explicit and to speak up to let people in the community know they are valued.”

There were several suggestions on how to address racial issues in Wayne given by Thompson and Budnick as well as Melody Appel, who also called in to the meeting.

Defund the Police

“We don't mean to get rid of the police,” said Budnick. “But reallocate some of the money that goes into the police budget back into the community.” 

All three of the callers mentioned a program called CAHOOTS, which stands for crisis assistance helping out on the streets.  It’s a program that has been in place in Oregon, according to all three. 

Appel stated: “CAHOOTS saved [Oregon] taxpayers $8M in public safety spending. I am disappointed, but not surprised that Wayne has not had a similar system, but it is extremely necessary.” 

The young woman said that her mother was a social worker and went through the same crisis intervention training that the Wayne Police have gone through, and though her mother said it was “Fantastic” and the program was proven to lower arrests, Appel says it is still not enough.

“People who deal with mental health issues their entire lives are still easily misunderstood by police officers who are uninformed,” she said. “The solution to this would be a new hotline people can call when suffering from any mental health emergency.”

“I highly suggest looking into implementing a service like this because, of the 160 police-use-of-force reports we looked through in Wayne, 20% involved subjects involved in substance abuse or mental health and another 20% involved people of color, despite Wayne being only 1.9% black,” added Thompson.

Councilwoman Fran Ritter responded to the idea of CAHOOTS, saying: “Not every crisis needs a badge and a gun to respond to it. Police obviously would be working in partnership with an organization such as a CAHOOTS and financing would be, potentially, something that we can look in to and, maybe, develop a community-wide policing structure that involves social workers and other professionals that could work with our police on de-escalation methods.”

Hotline

Budnick spoke about the examples of racial profiling that she has heard about in Wayne and suggested an anonymous hotline. “I gave Mayor Vergano information on the Passaic County Sheriff’s tip-line where people are encouraged to come forward with instances of bias, harassment or profiling and I think we should also add an anonymous hotline here in Wayne.”

Thompson said that a hotline could be used for “people to report incidents of bias whether on the basis of race, sex, gender identity, religion, ethnicity and so on.”

Mental Health Screening

“We could do what the State Police of New Jersey does, and require mental health/bias screenings for our officers every two years,” said Thompson. “This was something that was actually recommended to us by a Wayne Officer because not only does it protect the community from potential unchecked bias, it also protects our officers by addressing any trauma that they might be enduring while working on the force.”

Affordable Housing

Lastly, Thompson and Budnick touched on Wayne’s affordable housing obligation, tying it to racism. 

Thompson said: “In an official or public setting, one might express that their big concern with the town building these units is traffic or space. But have a real conversation with anyone in this town and you’ll find quickly that people are scared of ‘Those people moving into these units.’ It is undeniably a situation attached to race.”

“Wayne has avoided its mandated obligation for the past 25 years and is one of the few municipalities in New Jersey that is still in litigation,” added Budnick.

“There is no excuse any more for dodging affordable housing,” added Thompson.  “We have over a thousand units; over a thousand opportunities, that we need to be giving to low income families, and yes, that means low-income families of color.” 

Council Response

“I’ll just start by saying: Of course, black lives matter,” said Councilman Al Sadowski. He thanked the three who spoke at the meeting, spoke glowingly of the peaceful protest that they held and then added: “The part that I want to challenge is the folks that suggest that Police Departments that have had problems means Police Departments everywhere are a problem.”

Sadowski went on to describe the proclamation the Council gave to Wayne first responders, including the Police Department for their response to COVID-19. “They didn't look to see what political party or what color somebody was when they had to go address issues at a house or business or if they are running into harm's way, and not knowing what they're going to find.”

“So, I agree with a lot of what they said,” added Sadowski. “But I think there's some balance that needs to be had, and I'm not ready to say the Wayne Police Department is a problem in the Township.”

Jon Ettman also defended the Township. “Of course, black lives matter. I think our council has shown that, and myself in particular,” he said, mentioning his stance against an Islamophobic flyer that had been circulated around the Packanack area last year.

“We spoke out adamantly against that type of behavior and against racism, and any kind of prejudice,” Ettman said. “We're very cognizant of that up here as a council. We won't tolerate it; we will speak out against it whenever we see it. I know I do, and I feel comfortable saying that all my colleagues would do the same. So like Councilman Sadowski said, I certainly appreciate the thoughts of the individuals who spoke this evening, but please don't paint with such a broad brush. It's just not fair and we all are absolutely the first to speak out when we see things like this; any racism, any islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.”

“I realize it's a very difficult time in our country's history, but I think we need to come together,” said Councilwoman Jill Sasso. “We need to stop causing divide. Of course, black lives matter. I think all lives matter. Our police departments matter. All of this matters. We need to think about everything that we can do to strive for inclusion and equality. Some of the comments I heard tonight go against inclusion.”

Sasso also said: “I think we've also shown that any forms of racism or non-inclusion are not acceptable, and I've heard each and every member of this council address those issues. So, I don't think it's fair to say that those have not been addressed over time.”

Ritter said emphatically: “This Councilwoman here definitely comes out strong with the black lives matter. What we're hearing from the community tonight is something that I don't know if you've heard in a long time. It's not pointing fingers. It's just saying we have a problem. Let's come together as a community and solve it.”

“Whether it seems dramatic to anyone of us at all it's not for us really to say, because we're not black,” added Ritter.

Later on in the meeting, Mayor Vergano refuted the affordable housing statement: “When someone says that we have not been compliant for the past 25 years, that’s totally incorrect. We were compliant with round one, we were compliant with round two. Now we are in round three, and we have been negotiating for four and five years in order to get the best deal for Wayne Township.”

TAPinto Wayne reached out to Mayor Vergano for his perspective on the statements made during the meeting.

On racism in Wayne

“In my thirteen years as Mayor, we have never tolerated any type, or form of racism in this community,” he said. “We’ve addressed each situation head on. There are those that might believe that there are stronger problems than I am aware of, but anytime a situation has been brought to my attention, I’ve addressed it straight-forward. We flat out don’t tolerate racism in Wayne.”

On their suggestions

“I’ve met with Mr. Thompson and his team twice now, and I will meet with them again,” the Mayor said.  “It’s because I appreciate very much that these young people are involved in their local government and that their goal is to improve life in Wayne. We are looking into some of their suggestions, but we are a community of 55,000 and I believe some of the programs they’ve suggested could be handled better at a county level as opposed to a local level in order to best serve the constituents.”

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Wayne Police Chief, Jack McNiff responded via email:

"The Wayne Police Department enjoys an amazing relationship with our community," McNiff wrote." However, excellence in policing cannot be achieved without constant introspection, and I am committed to that."

The Wayne Police Chief continued: "This is achieved, in part, through continual training, strong policies and procedures, command-level meaningful reviews of each and every use of force incident, and a vibrant internal affairs process geared toward constant improvement and delivery of citizen services."

"We have also implemented an Early Warning System to detect patterns and trends before the conduct escalates into more serious problems," McNiff added. "As Chief of Police, I am quite proud of the amazing work that the men and women of the Wayne Police Department do each and every day.  I am surrounded by caring, compassionate, and honest police officers who are constantly driven toward excellence and are committed to fostering a relationship of trust and respect with the great people we serve.  They put themselves in harm’s way to help and care for others because they are committed to continually improving this great township.  No police department is perfect, but at Wayne PD we are driven to adhere to our department’s mission statement and motto, which is “To Protect With Honor and Serve With P.R.I.D.E.: Professionalism, Respect, Integrity, Dedication, and Excellence.”

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