The day after a rally at Lawrence High School to protest police brutality and the treatment of minorities, Police Chief Brian Caloiaro offered some insight in the Lawrence Township Police Department’s policies and practices – including the controversial issue of the use of force.
Caloiaro met virtually with religious leaders in a forum sponsored by the Clergy of Lawrence Township (COLT) June 8 for a wide-ranging discussion about the Lawrence Township Police Department in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
In opening the forum, when Caloiaro was asked about his reaction to Floyd’s death, the police chief said it was upsetting to him to watch what had occurred between four police officers and Floyd.
“You know what you saw on the screen is horrible. Tactically, it was just totally devastating to the law enforcement community,” Caloiaro said.
What also jumped out at him, Caloiaro said, was watching three police officers stand by as former Police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. The officers – two of them had been on the job for four days – allowed it to happen, he said.
Emphasizing that he was not justifying their actions, Caloiaro said they had been put in this situation by Chauvin, who was the training officer, and they did not know what to do as they watched him use an excessive amount of force.
Caloiaro said New Jersey is at the forefront in the use of force issue. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is working on a model policy on the use of force for the state’s police departments.
The Lawrence Township Police Department already has strict guidelines governing the use of force, he said. The policy dictates the rules and regulations on the use of force, including how police officers are to react in certain situations. They are held accountable when they resort to the use of force.
The policy states the a police officer must intervene if he or she sees another police officer using excessive force. He or she must immediately stop the offending police officer from using excessive force, or he or she will be held accountable for not doing so, Caloairo said.
The Lawrence Township Police Department also has an early warning system to identify police officers who need help in changing how they react. There are a dozen “triggering” events, and if a police officer trips three of them in a year’s time, he or she is put on an early watch system for modification of that behavior by his or her supervisors, Caloiaro said.
Also, Lawrence police officers have been wearing body cameras since 2017, and the footage is reviewed at random by supervisors. It captures the officer’s interactions with the public, such as traffic stops and police pursuits. Caloiaro said he reviews all use-of-force incidents and complaints from citizens.
Lawrence police officers also have begun to take de-escalation training, which teaches them how to talk down and defuse a situation, Caloiaro said.
“There is a good chance you will see this training (become mandatory) in New Jersey and the United States,” he said.
Caloiaro said the police department emphasizes community outreach. It needs an open dialogue and a partnership with the community in order to be successful, he said.
The police department formerly sponsored a citizens police academy that explained how policing works, and it is something that he would consider reviving. A similar academy is offered for children during the summer.
Caloiaro said that soon after he was named police chief in 2018, he brought back the DARE program in the schools and also assigned a police officer to become the school resource officer at Lawrence High School.
There are also special police officers assigned to the elementary schools, the Lawrence Intermediate School and Lawrence Middle School. They are retired police officers who have been brought into the schools in a new program to provide safety and security.
Forming a positive relationship with children is important, Caloiaro said. The officers serve as role models, and their interactions with the young people also allows the officers to “monitor with (the young people) what they see in us,” he said.
Caloiaro said officials want the Lawrence Township Police Department to reflect the diverse makeup of the community, but there are some obstacles toward achieving that goal.
While many towns can advertise an opening in the police department and choose from among the applicants, Lawrence Township must abide by Civil Service rules. This means it must hire from a pre-determined list.
Would-be police officers take a Civil Service test, and they are ranked on a list that officials must consult when filling a job vacancy. Officials must choose from among the top three ranked test-takers to fill the opening.
Caloiaro said the township reaches out to Rider University, Mercer County Community College and The College of New Jersey to recruit potential police officers. One of the goals of having police officers in the public schools is to show that anyone can become a police officer, he said.
“The key is getting a diverse population to take the test in the first place, and getting that person placed on the list so we can hire them when the time comes,” Caloiaro said.
Asked about what the Lawrence Township Police Department had learned from George Floyd’s death, he said all of the police officers were “shaken up” by the incident. It awakened them to the need to be on top of their job, and to know what they can and cannot do, he said.
Caloiaro said he hopes that the entire law enforcement profession would not be judged on one or two actions by police officers.
“I teach at the Mercer County Police Academy. I preach to the cadets that you never want to tarnish that badge. You are held to a higher standard in your professional and personal life. … It takes one incident like this one (in Minneapolis) to tarnish everyone’s badge throughout the world,” Caloiaro said.