By Briana Vannozzi
When Acting Attorney General John Hoffman announced widespread use of police body cameras for New Jersey’s state troopers and new practices and policies for police involved shootings, it was many of these community leaders quietly leading the change.
“We are having conversations now and addressing issues now that have needed to be addressed for many, many, many years,” said Elie Honig, Director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
Forums held around the state, like this one at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, are bridging communication barriers between groups in urban cities that have historically not spoken to each other.
“By providing a safe space for difficult, but candid conversations with law enforcement and the communities they serve, we are more aligned than we are dissimilar,” said Ryan Haygood.
The topic at hand for this meeting: community policing. Haygood, with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which leads the project, explains that “one of the things that residents really appreciate is having access to law enforcement. Access to their elected officials.”
“I think this is one of the first times, that I know of as a former police officer, retired police officer, that the community and the state is getting together and they’re actually listening to people,” said retired Newark police detective Michael Beasley.
“We need a review board that has the authority to call officers in to talk to them to be able to review information just like internal affairs does,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
Baraka addressed the newly minted civilian complaint review board, which is seeking to get subpoena powers in light of a federal monitor that will oversee the city’s police department.
“We are very close to finalizing the consent decree and selecting a monitor,” U.S Attorney Genereal Paul Fishman said. “I never like to predict or promise these things, but I’ll be very happy if this happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
State representatives give presentations on hot topics.
“We as a state are on the cutting edge of the country, the entire country, in rolling body cameras out to law enforcement,” Hoffman said.
Then open it up for Q&A, suggestions and small group discussions. These breakout groups are a hallmark of the forums. They’re organized by issue, so that community stakeholders and leaders get real face time to discuss and create action plans to solve problems.
“Just one month ago the NAACP joined with the Attorney General’s office and the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police to conduct implicit bias training for the police chiefs to conduct implicit bias training for the police chiefs,” said James Johnson.
“It’s very violent in my community. A lot of shootings on my block and I wanted to get an idea of how we can kind of save the relations,” said resident Dorian Kevin Johnson. “Try something different with the police, because in my neighborhood they’re afraid of the police. They don’t want to them.”
Those involved say they’re learning to walk a mile in each others’ shoes and to build trust. It’s the steps they’ll need if they hope to transform this community.