Pennington launches review committee to determine any systemic bias

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Pennington Borough Hall (center) contains both the police department and municipal court. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Pennington Borough Hall contains both the police department and the municipal court.ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Pennington Borough Hall (center) contains both the police department and municipal court. ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF
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Pennington Borough Hall contains both the police department and the municipal court.ANDREW HARRISON/STAFF

Pennington officials are establishing a Police and Court Review Committee to identify any systemic bias in operations of the police department and municipal court.

The five-member committee will conduct a through review of policies and procedures to determine if there are any issues of systemic bias and recommend ways to eliminate any found, according to Pennington Mayor Joe Lawver.

The committee will consist of two members of the governing body, two members of the community, and one individual from law enforcement. A committee chairperson is set to be chosen amongst the members.

Committee members are expected to be approved, appointed or accepting positions by July 11.

“Right now, Councilwoman Beverly Mills is one of the council representatives for the committee along with another council rep. I talked to Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri and he said he would appoint someone as our law enforcement representative any day now,” Lawver said. “We have also identified a handful of citizen representatives and expect to reach out to them and get individuals approved by the end of the week.”

He added that he is hopeful that the committee will be filled by the end of the week and have their first meeting next week to get themselves organized and moving ahead in the process.

The Borough Council unanimously approved the review through a resolution at a July 6 virtual meeting.

“The idea for this committee started out of the death George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. I had received along with other council members several requests from individuals asking us to take various pledges. We looked at them and did not feel comfortable signing on to any generic pledges,” Lawver said. “We felt it was more important that we took a real clear hard look in not only what we are doing in policing, but what we are doing all of our borough operations.”

The proposal for the review committee was developed and finished in the last month.

This committee is not anticipated to be the only committee established to review aspects of borough operations, according to Lawver.

“Whether they are standing committees or ad hoc committees, we will have to determine that. I want us to look at if we have a new position whether someone leaves or we created a position, where do we go to recruit,” he said. “For example, are we going places that are reaching out to communities of color when we announce positions available or are we just going by word of mouth and going to people who look like people who live Pennington.”

Training procedures would also be looked at on future committees and whether the borough would need to incorporate racial sensitivity training.

According to the proposal for the establishment of the committee, committee members are set to review all Pennington Police Department data and statistics on police stops, citations and arrests; Pennington Police Department Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); Pennington Police Department personnel polices (including hiring and training); Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office guidelines, directives and Internal Affairs procedures; and New Jersey Attorney General guidelines and directives.

“I support the mayor’s initiative of an independent review of the all areas of Pennington Borough departments, beginning with police and court. An independent review brings outside perspective and opinion which I think is important when reviewing policy and procedures and status quo,” Council President Catherine Chandler said.

She added that Chief of Police Doug Pinelli and the Public Safety Committee will continue their own review of policies and procedures to make sure Pennington is compliant on all levels with state SOPs.

“But I look forward to hearing the opinion of this review committee to see if there are any areas we can improve upon.” Chandler said.

When the committee begins its work they will provide an initial findings report and recommendations to the governing body after 90 days.

“We, the borough, do not have a lot of hands-on interaction with the municipal court, but I can tell you our Chief Pinelli has gone through years of records trying to find any examples of racial bias in any complaints filed or statistics kept,” Lawver said. “So far we have not seen anything, but we are not done. We have to go through the entire review and we will do that.”