Residents throughout Hopewell Valley protested for police accountability as they gathered in front of the Hopewell Township municipal building and police department.
The Hopewell Township Rally for Police Accountability took place in the parking lot of the building on June 13. The rally was a continuation of social justice protests that have spread across New Jersey and the country after the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
The peaceful protest was not just a call to action to honor lives lost, but to honor organizer Paul Pierson’s brother–in-law, Sgt. Michael Sherman of the Hopewell Township Police Department, who had filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the department alleging years of harassment and racist comments he experienced as an officer in the department.
The rally also came as the township has been grappling with the accusations and investigations of several township police officers and municipal employees accused of improper conduct involving social media in regards to a post on Facebook accusing the Black Lives Matter movement of being a terrorist group. The officers and employees were placed on leave on June 8 after the township learned of the improper conduct.
“Today was extremely important for the community for their voices to be heard and really say that they do not stand for systematic racism any more. We really laid out the demands that the Hopewell Township Police Department needs to be rebuilt starting from the top with Chief Lance Maloney and all of those who have discriminated against Sherman,” Pierson said. “We just demand the release of the reports. It has been three years and the same things are happening within the department.”
He added that he appreciated the turnout and stated they are going to continue to demand action.
“I am hopeful that the township is awake and sees what is happening in light of officer Sara Erwin comments on Facebook. A lot of people will say that Facebook is personal, but as an officer of the community you hold a much higher and moral authority to police the people in your community,” Pierson said. “If this is how you feel about people in your own community, how are you making police decisions and taking action against those coming through the community or in? If they do not address it, we will force them to address it.”
The crowd would chant “Silence is Violence” and “No Justice, No Peace” during the rally in Hopewell. Speakers for the event included faith leaders throughout Hopewell Valley, residents, the NAACP and Pennington Councilwoman Beverly Mills. A petition of demands was also announced by Paul Pierson for the Hopewell Township Committee and Mayor Kristin McLaughlin.
According to the online petition, the demands included a rigorous hiring practice that demands accountability of all officers, takes into account exposure to or lack of experiences with diverse communities, and education or equivalent experience; racial bias and discrimination training twice yearly throughout the entire department; transparency of any internal and on-duty incidents regarding police misconduct; and that Sherman be returned to duty effective immediately.
“It was an easy decision to be out here today. It is horrifying to not know how to be helpful in this. It is very important to have this demonstration. I’m thrilled it is here in Hopewell Township,” said Fran Swart of Hopewell Township. “I am thinking about joining the NAACP and participating in the township council meeting to see if I can understand more on what I can do to help reform the police, understand better and educate myself more. We cannot turn away anymore. It is time for us to figure out how to help.”
Hopewell Township resident Amy Pearlmutter said she hopes that the community educates itself.
“Many people have a great pride in living in this community, but we can’t have pride in the community if there is injustice and not everyone has the same privileges and rights here that others do. Nobody should be afraid because of the color of their skin and the stories that I have heard about the police here are deeply disturbing,” she added. “I would have expected the police to come forward and make a statement about what had happened to Floyd. I disappointed that they did not make a statement and that the mayor is not here to listen and understand what the people in this town are saying.”
For Pennington resident Eugene Marsh, he said he sees the rally as a reminder of struggles of African Americans for more than 400 years.
“To be here today to see people from all walks of life, ethnicities, race and gender gives me a power that we are not in moment but a movement. A movement that can make change in this country and this today is long over due,” he said. “In 1965, I became the first African American to integrate schools in Lancaster, South Carolina. It is now 55 years later and we are still dealing with racism and bigotry. George Floyd’s death was a wake up call and alarm throughout the world.”
He added that police departments need to be about community policing.
“I want to see Maloney terminated based on his ineffective leadership as the head of the township police department. I want policies implemented and procedures to be review by the township committee to ensure that equity and equality are distributed to all people,” Marsh said.