‘Use of Force’ session encourages feedback on police perceptions

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By MADELEINE MACCAR
The Sun

The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office and the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General presented a Use of Force by Police Officers webinar July 15, with a goal of encouraging the Burlington County community to share perspectives and concerns regarding police interactions.

The two-hour listening session invited residents to weigh in and directly address or question the evening’s panelists. It was a direct response to the recent spike in national news focused on societal and racial inequality, as well as police violence.

“As a society, we are still struggling to come to terms with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis,” said Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina, who served as the session’s moderator. “To get from where we are to where we need to be, we need to talk about it.”

The dialogue between police and communities allowed those attending the webinar to hear from not only Coffina but also representatives from the county. N.J. Assistant Attorney General Robert Czepiel Jr. was joined by Burlington Township patrol officer Jarrod Broadway, City of Burlington Police Chief John Fine, Willingboro Township Director of Public Safety Kinamo Lomon, Bordentown Township Police Chief Brian Pesce and Evesham Township patrol officer Josh Weiss. Congressman Andy Kim and state Sen. Troy Singleton were also in attendance.

Panelists spoke to their areas of expertise throughout the question-and-answer forum and cited their own experiences as examples. The range of perspectives from not only from different towns but also police chiefs and officers alike allowed them to offer actionable, concrete answers and explain the processes behind responses to listeners’  concerns.

Questions from the webinar’s audience included inquiries about: specifics of law-enforcement training; excessive-force prevention; minimizing and addressing implicit biases; removing routine-offender officers; encouraging community involvement as a way to ensure officers remain in touch with the people they serve; fostering transparency with the public; treating officers’ mental health, with particular attention to PTSD symptoms; and accountability within the police force from the municipal to the state level.

Panelists also fielded questions about what kind of plans, education and systems are in place to keep tragedies like the recent deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor from playing out in Burlington County.

Coffina expressed his wish that engaging in such frank and potentially uncomfortable topics will eliminate the panic that can yield tragically fatal consequences.

“No one should ever have to fear for the safety of a loved one if they encounter a police officer,” he said. “If we can accomplish anything tonight, it would be to start to understand the disconnect between law-enforcement officers who believe they’re well intentioned and those members of our broad, diverse community who have a different experience or perception of the police.”

Coffina also announced that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is “currently updating his use of force policy for law enforcement” for the first time since 2000. Input from the public could help shape the revised policy and can be solicited through the portal at nj.gov/oag.

Early in the webinar, Broadway spoke of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training that 350 of the county’s police officers have already undergone. The initiative offers collaborative learning between law-enforcement and mental-health professionals by providing the “knowledge and skills that allow them to respond to the individual in psychiatric crisis in a manner that minimizes the potential for injury.”

There is a CIT pilot program currently in the works that will train police departments in Atlantic City, Paterson, Trenton and Millville, as well as New Jersey State Police troopers assigned in Trenton.

Mental health was a recurring topic of the session, particularly in terms of treating officers for the stressors of their job and teaching them to safely handle the unique ways mental illness expresses itself in individuals experiencing crises.

A question toward the end of the session noted the dangerous cycle between Black men fearing law enforcement and law enforcement fearing Black men, an issue of bias that Broadway addressed through his own experience as a Black man and police officer.

“If I’m wearing a uniform, I get a pass and I’m accepted,” he noted. “But If I walk into a retail establishment at a certain hour, I’m looked at more closely.”

Broadway explained that as a Black man, he grew up “having experiences that other people don’t” — like teaching his Black son to keep his hands where police can see them at all times if he ever gets pulled over because his life depends on it.

“Historically, the Black men in America have been portrayed as a threat,” the officer  said, explaining that numerous societal and media messages have created an unconscious bias that many don’t even realize they have.

Fine added that hiring officers directly from within the community they serve through reserves and recruitment of local youth helps ensure police understand the specific needs and pain points in their towns, while the police force has a better understanding of those candidates’ characters and can groom future officers. Weiss also affirmed the importance of “bridging these gaps” between officers and the public.

The session ended with the assurance it was just the first of many and that the next one is already in its planning stages.

A recording of the two-hour listening session is available at the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office Facebook page (facebook.com/burlpros), as well as on its website at burlpros.org.