MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Tuesday, Aug. 1, was an up and down night for the Maplewood Police Department. The evening started with the department’s National Night Out celebration, meant to strengthen bonds between police officers and the community they serve. The evening ended with Police Chief Robert Cimino being placed on administrative leave and being asked for his immediate resignation by the Maplewood Township Committee.
Prior to that night’s Township Committee meeting, protesters marched through the National Night Out event, calling for Cimino to be fired due to his actions on July 5, 2016. During the protest, Maplewood police ensured the protesters were able to speak and even cleared a path for them, before the protesters left the event and headed to the Maplewood Township Committee meeting, which was being held at Maplewood Police Headquarters on Springfield Avenue because Town Hall does not have air conditioning.
These concerned residents from Maplewood and surrounding communities were calling for Cimino’s dismissal due to the department’s alleged racial profiling and alleged use of excessive force to calm an allegedly rowdy group of teenagers following township fireworks on July 5, 2016. After more than a year had passed, the township released police reports, and audio and video files from that night, during which four teenagers — three from South Orange and one from Maplewood — were arrested after police responded to a report of a large fight.
According to police, the officers saw a large group of disorderly teens, whom they attempted to disperse; however, the teens allegedly resisted, refusing to leave the area.
With assistance from the South Orange and Irvington police departments, Maplewood police monitored the situation and arrested four teenage boys, charging them with several counts, including disorderly conduct, obstruction, resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer. According to police, the large group of teenagers — reportedly mostly black — was ultimately disbanded near the Irvington border; no officers were injured and no property was reported damaged as a result of the alleged fights.
According to the released records, there are several reports of the involved teens, in several unruly crowds, assaulting officers who were attempting to restore order, as well as reports of police using pepper spray on the teenagers and, in some instances, punching teenagers who resisted arrest. The audio files also appear to indicate that, following orders from Cimino, Maplewood police were attempting to corral the teenagers and push them toward the Irvington border. While it is clear in some audio files that police were dealing with unruly crowds, in others it sounds as if the alleged incidents were dying down and calm was being restored. The audio files are all relatively short, providing fragmentary snapshots of the events.
Following the release of these files, as well as an overwhelming negative response from the public, the Maplewood Township Committee spent a good deal of its Aug. 1 meeting addressing the incident.
Committeeman Frank McGehee spoke for several minutes, decrying the events of July 5, 2016. His remarks, in their entirety, are below:
“The events of July 5, 2016, are sickening and unacceptable. That evening following our township’s celebration of the Fourth of July, black children who were gathered on Valley were herded like cattle out of Maplewood, a town that many of these children call home. There is no greater message that you are not welcome than being driven out of your hometown simply because of the color of your skin. When did being black become a qualifying factor regarding residency in Maplewood?
“Leadership matters. The abuse of power and poor leadership bathed in racial bias on display that night is disgusting. Were it not for the directive of those in the position of leadership, this particular act of excessive force would not have occurred.
“Research shows that black children, especially black boys, are policed disproportionately like no other demographic. They are seen as ‘out of place’ virtually everywhere. Research has also shown that adolescence is a critical time during which young people come to understand and respect or resent the law.
“As horrific as the July 5 event is, I do not want to paint our entire police department with a broad brush. Over the last several months, I have had the opportunity to work with many of these men and women directly to start the groundwork for a mentoring program that will help benefit our young people. Several events have already taken place at Columbia High School, but I am very concerned about the erosion of trust the July 5 event has created and the negative lasting effects going forward.
“We’d like to believe that we live in a safe and nurturing environment for our children, but the acts of July 5, 2016, as well as other acts in our town, have brought a rash realization to many Maplewoodians that we are not the town that we think we are. The claim that we are both diverse and inclusive is aspirational — not a reality. We all have work to do to live up to the claim that we are so proud to voice that Maplewood is a community that represents equality, a welcoming community.
“The actions that we take moving forward will define if we really are who we say we are. Changes need to be made at all levels, including at the police level. When just last fall a 5-year-old black child playing in one of our public parks is told ‘only white people,’ you have to pause and ask yourself: Where does that come from? We have work to do. When we can justify the act of putting pictures on the wall of a public school building portraying a slave auction, which in my opinion is no different than human trafficking, and calling it education — there is no justification. It is simply unacceptable. We have work to do. When a new resident is told that the town, which they now call home, is known as Maplegood, Maplewood and Maplehood, we have work to do. And these are merely the examples we know about because we read them in the press and on social media.
“The directive of July 5, 2016, was inexcusable and senseless. These are our children. I cannot help but to think about my own black daughter and the pervasive emotional and physical toll that this event likely continues to have on the families who were directly involved. No person, regardless of title, rank or tenure is above the law. The law is designed to serve and safeguard all persons within our township. Being black is not a crime and wrong is wrong. Tonight I grab onto the arc of a moral universe and bend it just a little more toward justice.”
The other three members of the Township Committee in attendance that night voiced their agreement with McGehee. Though Committeeman Greg Lembrich was absent, Mayor Vic DeLuca assured the public that the committee had been in touch with Lembrich several times via telephone and email throughout the day and that he was in general agreement with them.
“There has been a definite erosion of trust and as a result of that erosion there are certain actions we will need to take,” Committeewoman India Larrier said, adding that Maplewood needs to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. “We have heard everything that you all, you residents, have said. We have received your emails. We have taken to heart your words and the pain that you feel and please know that we are addressing this with the seriousness that it deserves.”
Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams also expressed her disgust over what she saw in the recently released evidence from July 5, 2016.
“We were appalled and disgusted by what we saw our police being directed to do or what they were acting and doing in those tapes,” Adams said. “This is not the town that I live in, this is not the town that I believe in, this is not the town I’ve lived in since 1989, this is not the town I’ve raised five children in, gone through the public school system in — this is not the town that I love right now.”
While condemning police actions of July 5, 2016, DeLuca also discussed what he would like to see happen moving forward.
“We are appalled by the excessive force used by police officers against a group of young people,” DeLuca said. “We are appalled by decisions that were made by our leadership of the police department and we want to set the record straight that that type of behavior is not going to be accepted in Maplewood and that the police department is going to right themselves and we are going to work together with you. We’re going to rely on our consultants to help us to right this ship and get it working again for all of us.”
This consensus among the committee members led to several rapid-fire motions, each met with thunderous applause by the large crowd of residents in attendance — a crowd so large that many individuals were forced to stand and many more were in the hallway, unable even to fit inside the room.
“Tonight the excuses stop. Tonight the delays stop. We now have the authority to start making decisions,” DeLuca said.
The committee voted unanimously, 4-0, to pass a vote of “no confidence” in Cimino; to call for Cimino to resign immediately; to instruct the town’s business administrator to place Cimino on administrative leave, with pay, for 60 days; and to place Capt. Joshua Cummis on administrative leave, with pay, until Aug. 31.
The Township Committee took these steps despite not having reports from any completed investigations into that night showing misbehavior. On March 30, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Officer concluded that there was “insufficient credible evidence to warrant a prosecution” of Cimino and Cummis.
At the committee meeting, DeLuca and Adams both expressed their displeasure and frustration with how long it took the ECPO to send the case back to Maplewood.
“While many in the public have rightfully expressed frustration about the length of time for the tapes of July 5, 2016, to be released, I can say that I and my colleagues have experienced the same frustration,” Adams said. “Waiting for the evidence and the tapes to be released so that we officials could even come close to hearing or seeing this evidence was incredibly long.”
Though the internal MPD investigation continues, the department has reprimanded six of its officers for their actions that night, according to a July 28 statement from the department’s Internal Affairs Unit.
The township has also hired an independent investigator to look into the alleged incident. Hillard Heintze was retained at a rate of $29,000, though that fee could go up to $34,850, as needed. Two representatives from Hillard Heintze — Senior Vice President Robert Davis and law enforcement consulting Vice President Rick Tanksley — spoke at the Aug. 1 Township Committee meeting.
“We reach out and assist police departments, law enforcement agencies, at the municipal, state and federal level across the United States,” Davis said. “We specifically look at either operations of a department or for specific incidences of operations people want us to take a look at and then we compare and contrast what agencies are doing or have done to see how they compare to best practices across the country.”
According to Davis, Hillard Heintze will review Maplewood Police Department procedures, policies, training, leadership training and more. During the course of the investigation, the firm will speak to police officers and members of the community about the incident.
“We’ve already launched our interviews with some of the members of the police department, but we would be looking for assistance both from the council and from other leaders within the city to identify individuals within the community with whom we should be speaking,” Davis said.
Davis stressed that Hillard Heintze is interested in speaking with any member of the community who might like to speak with him. He anticipated the firm submitting its final report to the Township Committee toward the end of September.