WEST ORANGE, NJ — Following Saturday's peaceful Black Lives Matter protest organized by the West Orange Youth Caucus, the West Orange Town Council invited several superior members of the West Orange Police Department (WOPD) on Tuesday to speak about the initiatives that are already being taken to end police brutality in the township.

"We were performing at Campaign Zero well in advance of the George Floyd tragedy," Police Chief James Abbott said, continuing that the WOPD is the only nationally accredited police agency in Essex County and one of approximately 12 in the state of New Jersey.

According to its website, Campaign Zero is a platform that outlines 10 categories of research-based policy solutions to end police brutality in America, but it also has a project known as #8CANTWAIT, which is a campaign geared towards bringing immediate short-term change to police departments.

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According to Abbott the WOPD:

  • Already bans chokeholds and strangleholds
  • Already requires de-escalation
  • Already requires warning before shooting
  • Already exhausts all alternatives before shooting
  • Already assumes duty to intervene
  • Already bans shooting at moving vehicles
  • Already established use of force continuum
  • Already requires all force to be reported accordingly

Abbott continued that he plans on reinvigorating the West Orange Citizens Police Academy, a program which in recent years had fallen by the wayside due to a lack of people, explaining that he would like to recruit people from communities of color so that they would be acquainted with the activities of the WOPD.

“I want the people who are going to challenge us,” he said. “Maybe they’re not so convinced we do a good job, despite performing at Campaign Zero. They may have had their own instances of police misconduct in West Orange or somewhere else or at least their perception of it.”

Abbott added that Mayor Robert Parisi was in the process of working on ordinances with the West Orange Youth Caucus, which will be presented to the council at the next meeting. These ordinances, which reflect current WOPD directives, will allow for more transparency, enabling the public to be aware of current WOPD policy.

“If people are unaware these are my policies, they might be more aware if they see the governing body of West Orange on television cameras voting these into ordinance,” he said. “I think it’s a good measure.” He continued that these ordinances probably would not have any “real impact on an officer who violated the role of regulation of the ordinance” other than being charged under the disciplinary processes of the WOPD.

In accordance with issues raised by the West Orange Youth Caucus, Abbott also said that the township’s ordinance on loitering (§4-12.2 B) will be repealed and that there will be an ordinance banning the use of “less lethal force” including rubber bullets and tear gas.

When asked by Councilman Joe Krakoviak about the need for an Independent Civilian Review Board, another point raised by the West Orange Youth Caucus, Abbott said that the Attorney General enacted a provision on April 1 to allow some level of police oversight and “if done properly could be a constructive tool to gain the confidence of the citizens of West Orange.”

Although the WOPD is operating at Campaign Zero, West Orange Youth Caucus co-founder and West Orange High School (WOHS) Class of 2019 alumnus Truman Segal noted that the WOPD was operating at the #8cantwait standard, which is seen as the “bare minimum” and the same system adopted by the Minneapolis Police Department before George Floyd’s murder.

“So, there’s only further to go,” Segal said, adding that to prevent more police brutality the WOPD should seek to adopt policies in line with 10 points outlined by Campaign Zero including:

  • Ending broken windows policing
  • Community oversight
  • Limiting the use of force
  • Independent investigation and prosecution
  • Community representation
  • Body cams/Filming the police
  • Training
  • Ending for-profit policing
  • Demilitarization
  • Fair police union contracts

Fellow West Orange Youth Caucus co-founder, West Orange Police Academy graduate, and WOHS senior Joseph Nalieth added that “although the police department’s internal directives may meet Campaign Zero, a violation can only be reprimanded internally and in several recent high profile instances of excessive use of force in this country, offending officers have gotten off without justice being served…

“We call for local ordinances on top of the directives so that offending officers can be prosecuted,” he said referencing the petition drafted by the West Orange Youth Caucus, which currently has 6,770 signatures.

“We also need effective change, not just symbolic change,” said Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown in response to the upcoming ordinances, adding that after speaking with Tom Puryear, President of the Oranges and Maplewood chapter of NAACP, she realizes more needs to be done so that the township will be competitive for recruitment.

“A recruitment plan is going to be insignificant if we are not competitive,” she said explaining that the WOPD is not competitive because it “still does not have a contract” and the administration does not want to provide retiree health benefits.

“I think we absolutely need to recruit officers that represent the diversity of our community, but I also want to be realistic about what that looks like and have those conversations because as with any other position, you’re going to go where the offers are more attractive,” said Matute-Brown.

According to Captain Richard McDonald the WOPD also undergoes annual training on implicit bias and racial profiling. And in addition to regularly reviewing body cam footage, Captain William Varanelli of the Internal Affairs Unit explained that the police department uses an Early Warning monitoring system to track complaints, use of force, and pursuit activity.

During public comment, West Orange Human Relations Commission Chair Tammy Williams, said that she was proud that the West Orange community held a “peaceful rally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd,” continuing that while West Orange does not represent the systemic dysfunction of police departments across the country, “we still live in a community that has identified … areas where we can do better.”

Williams also mentioned that she has spoken with Chief Abbott to support a National Night Out in West Orange in August 2020.

“I believe this would be a fantastic community opportunity to promote familiarity between our West Orange police officers and the residents,” she said.

Williams added that although West Orange is “very much ahead of the curve of many towns” the HRC continues to seek to engage the community “to create the best West Orange and to become a model suburban community.”

The next virtual town council meeting is on June 23 at 6:30 p.m.