By Marion Filler
The Rev. Jerry Carter, who is Black, feels anxious when he drives through Randolph or Morris Plains and sees a police car in his rear-view mirror.
“We are in the middle of a — and I’m not being melodramatic — a revolution, with race at the center of it. Law enforcement is one aspect of this race issue,” Carter, senior pastor of Morristown’s Calvary Baptist Church since 1990, told a virtual forum on the police use of force on Friday.
He was among 11 speakers at the event, sponsored by the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office as part of a statewide community outreach series started by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
Panelists included a mix of Black clergy members, police chiefs from Chester and Long Valley, and representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office. They discussed policies and procedures before fielding questions from the public for an hour.
Prosecutor Fredric Knapp was the point man, asking for input from the panel before opening the program to questions. Chief Thomas Williver of Chester described a 20-week training program for all officers across New Jersey as “just the beginning” of continuing courses, which include use of force, cultural sensitivity, and bias training.
“While we take use-of-force training, we also take it to the next step where we have to render aid,” said Long Valley Chief Ahmed Naga, describing basic first-aid techniques officers can use whenever required, injured suspects included.
A pilot program dealing with law enforcement and the Black community starts on July 29, 2020, Knapp said.
Two issues were foremost on Rev. Carter’s agenda.
“How do you improve the relationship between the community and police before the use of force is even necessary?” he asked. Carter also wanted to know if there was an effort to hire ethnically diverse law enforcement to reflect the communities they serve.
Rev. David Hollowell, president of the Morris Area Interfaith Clergy Council and a member of the executive board of the Morristown NAACP chapter, also expressed concern about building trust between community and law enforcement.
“When a police officer comes into a situation, it’s very important that he negotiate and deal with the cultural differences,” Hollowell said.
He pointed out that mental illness, substance abuse, and many years of deprivation can influence a reaction. “The officer has to think, ‘How can I get this under control?’ Force should be the last resort.”
The consensus from all sides seemed to be that trust and diverse law enforcement went hand in hand.
County Detective/Supervisor Patrick LaGuerre, an African American, and his team recruit from college campuses and law schools for internships.
“We have hired 10 interns who then became detectives,” said LaGuerre, adding that his team also speaks at churches, “to let kids know we have an interest in them.”
LaGuerre also encourages members of the community, and not just young people, to introduce themselves to neighborhood police. He advised parents of special needs children to let it be known that their child may not respond appropriately to a command, and suggested police “get out the car and speak to the community.”
Chief of Staff Rocco Miscia, former director of the Essex County College Public Safety Academy, has longstanding connections to East Orange law enforcement and uses them to make hires for the Morris Prosecutor’s Office.
“Having detectives who work in an urban environment who come out to Morris County, I think, helps us to deal with the community in a better way,” said Knapp.
The Rev. Herman Scott, the first African American to serve as chaplain at the Morris County Jail, asked: “Why does an officer have to shoot to kill? Why can’t he use a Taser?”
Police are trained to aim for the “center mass” to stop a threat, Knapp said. Not all officers carry Tasers–electric stun guns–because they are expensive and require special training, the prosecutor said.
Questions from callers dwelt on specific procedures and how to access information.
When a civilian files a Use of Force complaint, LaGuerre said, “we investigate every aspect of every complaint, whether it is an anonymous call or a video.”
Complaints can be lodged on the Internal Affairs website of the Prosecutors Office, or by calling (973) 285-6200.
What about bodycams? Chief Naga said they are required to be switched on in “all interactions,” but if an officer is driving by and waving “hello,” the camera is not necessary. Sergeants routinely perform monthly spot checks of camera footage of their officers, and they in turn are checked by lieutenants, Naga said.
Choke holds have sparked protests since the choking deaths by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Eric Garner in New York.
Knapp said choke holds are considered deadly force, which fill 120 pages in the instruction manual.
“Choke hold or carotid restriction is strictly prohibited unless it means the life of the officer or someone else,” said Moscia.
The state Attorney General is redefining use-of-force policy, which should be updated by the end of the year, said Knapp. It is only eight pages long, and can be accessed on the AG’s website.
Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her Louisville, KY, apartment by police executing a no-knock warrant in March.
No-knock warrants are used in less than 10 percent of searches in Morris County, mostly for drug raids and gangs, when encounters with armed suspects are likely, said Knapp.
They must be approved by a judge and require more justification than standard warrants, he said.
When there is a lethal encounter involving police, it’s investigated either by neighboring prosecutors or the state Attorney General, to avoid perceptions of bias, said Morris Supervising Assisting Prosecutor Christopher Schellhorn.
The state is investigating this month’s shooting of Timothy O’Shea, 24, by police in Morris Township.
Citizens who want to learn more about police training can download the 265-page manual used by every police academy in New Jersey.
Morris is among the few counties with a Shoot Don’t Shoot simulator, which engulfs trainees in lifelike, potentially life-threatening scenarios. Do you shoot? Do you wait and see? Before the pandemic, this simulator gave members of the public a real appreciation of the challenges facing police officers, said Miscia.
Williver, the Chester police chief, said police are taught to de-escalate situations by separating the parties, slowing things down, listening to the complaints, and being respectful to the people involved. If there is a health crisis, St. Clare’s Hospital or Atlantic Health may be called for professional assistance.
The Rev. Carter, who also serves as president of the African-American Clergy Association of Morris County, said past interactions with law enforcement have created an “automatic tension” with people of color.
“People in leadership have to examine the role that race plays in policing,” Carter said, asserting that initiatives and programs could not replace an honest conversation about race.
“It’s impossible to change the world,” the minister said. “But it’s possible to change your world.”