By GLORIA STRAVELLI
METUCHEN –- Borough police would be required to report on the race and ethnicity of drivers pulled over in traffic stops and to wear body cameras if recommendations presented by a specially appointed Equity Commission are formally adopted.
The Rev. Ronald Owens, chairman, presented the commission’s recommendations to the Metuchen Borough Council on May 24, just hours before the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer May 25, 2020, touching off protests across the nation and around the world.
“Tomorrow is the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death and I signed a pledge as mayor to review policing in our community,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said. “On June 3 of last year I signed the Mayors’ Pledge with the Our Brother’s Keeper organization, designed to review, engage and report and reform policing in our communities.”
Busch said at that time he had been working with Police Chief David Irizarry on ways the department and borough could work together on the issue of police reform.
“Here in Metuchen we’re really fortunate that we have a really wonderful community-oriented police department that works very hard to do the right thing,” the mayor said. “But that’s not to say that there isn’t room in every organization for feedback and ultimately for improvement.
“So I committed to this pledge and the idea was for cities to review their police use of force policies and ways to redefine public safety and combat systemic racism within law enforcement, to engage with communities and include diverse input and experiences and stories.
“In the process, ultimately, to have a report where, after review … the borough would share findings with the community and seek feedback. And then, finally, reform and change … our use-of-force policies and strategize the ways to redefine public safety and combat systemic racism within law enforcement.”
The Borough Council unanimously accepted the recommendations of the Equity Commission, of the Human Relations Commission, whose members, in addition to Rev. Owens, are: David Alston, Alan Johnson, Dr. Hazel Anne Johnson-Marcus, Charles Lopez, Rabbi Eric Rosin, Dr. Deborah Mohammed-Spigner and Bobbie Theivakumaran.
Rev. Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said, “I come today to say to you that we did not come to defund the police department; we did not come to say that there is anything wrong with our police department.
“What I came to say is that no matter how good things are, they can be better. And so I appreciate the mayor putting trust in us, and Chief Irizarry putting trust in us also, because it was a cooperative effort between the mayor and the chief and this commission.
“We met every month for the whole year. We did research on our state, on comparative police forces in our nation and particularly focusing on Middlesex County and we came up with some recommendations that I think will help us to make our police department better.”
The commission’s recommendations for the Metuchen Police Department include:
1. Self-reporting (similar to the New Jersey State Police) on race and/or ethnicity of drivers in traffic stops. Data collected to include the number of summons issued and the number of written and/or oral warnings per officer.
2. Tracking use-of-force data for all officers and provision of quarterly and annual reports to the borough council and the Human Relations Commission.
3. More proactive data collection that can be used more effectively for evaluation.
4. Pay for recruits to attend the police academy and require them to remain with the department for a specified period.
5. Leverage resources to assist with hiring minorities and for support on increasing diversity and inclusion practices within the department.
6. Pursue the process of achieving accreditation to attract the best officers.
7. Create a policy to require body cameras be worn at all times and a formal review process to analyze the data.
8. Provide robust racial, ethnic, cultural and religious sensitivity training specific to groups represented in the community and a feedback mechanism from the constituent groups.
9. Reinstate performance evaluations and maintain performance records. Make promotions and pay raises dependent on compliance with the recommendation.
“We don’t have a time span on all of this but we do say that we need to get to work to make some of this happen,” Rev. Owens said. “We have made these recommendations to encourage greater accountability via updated practices and policies regarding training, hiring and data collection in the Metuchen Police Department. This report, developed in collaboration with MPD, recommends proactive steps to implement fair and just, evidence-based practices that should ensure the best outcomes for our community and the MPD.”