Pennington committee reviews police department tactics, does not determine bias

Entrance into the Pennington Police Department at Borough Hall.

The Pennington Police and Court Review Ad Hoc Committee has not identified any systemic bias within the police department after reviewing documents and data from 2016-20.

The committee established in July reported its findings to members of Pennington Council during a meeting on Nov. 2. The ad hoc committee reviewed documents and data that included a breakdown of arrests by the police department from June 2016 to June 2020, according to race, gender and age.

There was also a breakdown in terms of race and gender of the members of personnel and the personnel employed by the department that had been evaluated by the committee.

“Neither of which raise any red flags for us. Additional information reviewed included use of body cameras, internal affairs reports, annual reports and the current composition of the department and personnel in terms of race and gender,” said Councilwoman Deborah Gnatt, who is one the members on the committee. “We did note that there are not currently any female officers, but we were advised by Chief of Police Doug Pinelli that there was a female employed by the department in the 1990s, however she transferred to Hopewell and later moved to another state.”

The committee members also consisted of Councilwoman Beverly Mills, along with community representatives Kathleen Nash and Chad Bridges. During the course of the committee review, Gnatt did report the committee had received one complaint of alleged discrimination from the wife of a Black male resident.

“She found out through driving in Pennington with him that he had a series of experiences in Pennington. He complained of being singled out and treated unfairly driving through Pennington,” she added. “We tried to look into this further and tried to communicate with personally to get some more information from him but he did not respond to our attempts to reach him, so we were unable to substantiate any such claims.”

In addition, Bridges also interviewed several Black males who live and work in Pennington.

“No one reported feeling threatened or uncomfortable or targeted by the police department. As a result of our efforts in our work, we did not identify any systemic bias given the information we were provided with by the Pennington Police Department,” Gnatt said. “No specific instances and no overall data that suggested any bias.”

The goal of the review was to determine if there are any issues of systemic bias in operations of the police department and municipal court and recommend ways to eliminate any found; by reviewing all police department data and statistics on police stops, citations and arrests; Pennington Police Department Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); and personnel polices (including hiring and training).

“In light of the George Floyd slaying and the protests, in discussion with Chief Pinelli, we thought it would be good to take a more unbiased review or look at how we operate our police and court in Pennington to ensure there was no systemic bias sneaking into our police operations,” Pennington Mayor Joe Lawver said. “Understandably there was a little hesitance by some in the police department, but I want to commend Chief Pinelli and the entire force for embracing this as the process went on. The committee got full and robust cooperation from police throughout the process.”

Pinelli also reported that all of the officers, but two new officers have gone to de-escalation training.

“They (the officers) will be signed up to go to crisis intervention training, so the committee understands that we are moving forward with that. I know there was some concern about some additional training,” he said. “We are doing the best we can with COVID-19.”

Pinelli and the Public Safety Committee are also currently in the process of reviewing SOPs and the police department is developing a five-year plan on the future of the department at the request of Council President Catherine Chandler and Lawver.

“We have been discussing with Chief Pinelli that the department puts together a five-year plan on what the department will look like as it goes forward, what kind of capital resources the department needs, training, staffing and etc.,” Lawver said. “They are working on it diligently and do not expect anything until the first of the new year, but we should have it in hand for the budgeting process in 2021. The bringing of an outside party to evaluate SOPs will be part of that.”