Ministers hold hearings on police use of force in New Jersey

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Ruby Conde received a call on Dec. 17, 2012 that an Atlantic City police officer had shot her son twice in the back and killed him. A grand jury would clear the officer and a court would dismiss Conde’s civil suit in a dispute over whether 18-year-old Derreck Mack — who was under surveillance in a drug operation — had a gun, was reaching for it or had his arms raised in a surrender position.

Conde shared her agony at the Salvation and Social Justice organization’s hearing Tuesday night in Pleasantville. It was one of several sessions across New Jersey to collect testimony about citizens’ encounters with police.

“It is easy to call these gatherings anti-police because there’s something in the DNA of our policing in our country that does not want to be held accountable, does not want to be called out and has been so deeply protected. So this not about anti-police. This is about anti-police misconduct, anti-police brutality, anti-police use of force,” said Rev. Willie Francois, senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Pleasantville.

The reporting of NJ Advance Media sparked this and other hearings. Through public records requests, NJ Advance Media collected more than 72,000 police documents covering 2012 to 2017 to report statistics on police use of force.

“Obviously the reason that we’re here is one of the most significant findings we had were some troubling racial disparities in police use of force. Statewide, a black person was more than three times as likely to face police force than someone who is white,” said Sean Sullivan, a reporter with NJ Advance Media.

The reporting found Atlantic City had among the highest use of force rates in the state. NJ Advance Media found a sizable chunk of it was white tourists at casinos, making it seem blacks have a 35% less chance of having force used against them in Atlantic City.

“But, you base it on arrests, black people are slightly more likely to have force used against them than a white person,” Sullivan said.

Atlantic City’s police chief says police-worn body cameras are decreasing use of force incidents.

“If they look at 2018, 2017, and even 2016, you will see a sharp decrease in the times that our officers have to use force in Atlantic City,” said Chief Henry White. “[It’s] because of a lot of initiatives and reforms that we have put in to place, which is unbeknown to a lot of folks.”

The state attorney general has launched a separate series of listening sessions across New Jersey and directed police departments to release, upon formal request, body and dash camera videos of deadly force after initial investigations to increase transparency, accountability and trust.

Organizers say history, collected testimony, and the use of force data point to the need for change.

“One of the things I think we, as a community, have to do is elevate the conversation to human rights,” said Eric Dobson, outreach coordinator for Fair Share Housing Center.

The Salvation and Social Justice organization says it’s taking testimony from across the state not just to present to state lawmakers and state officials, but it actually wants to present legislation.

“Requiring culturally competent, implicit bias and psychological analysis. We need to test how racist folks are before they become cops,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, Salvation and Social Justice founder.

The next hearing is June 6 in Elizabeth where the police director recently resigned over alleged racist and sexist remarks. The department reportedly has not upheld an excessive force complaint in years.