MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Residents turned out in considerable numbers March 5 for a community meeting at The Woodland to meet acting Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul and Lt. Kevin Kisch, the two candidates vying for the position of Maplewood police chief.
Maplewood Township Committee members were in attendance at the event, though they were not participating in the discussion. Following the meeting, attendees will be surveyed via email to share their feedback on the two candidates, and the committee plans to appoint a candidate to the position at its next regularly scheduled meeting on March 20.
The search for a new chief comes following the Aug. 1 decision by the Maplewood Township Committee to place former Chief Robert Cimino on administrative leave following allegations of police misconduct stemming from a July 5, 2016, altercation. On that same date, the Township Committee appointed DeVaul, then a captain, to serve as the acting chief. The committee and Cimino eventually reached a settlement that he would retire from the department, effective Jan. 1.
Initially, the Maplewood Township Committee planned to look beyond the local police department for a potential replacement for the chief position, but they were informed by the local Police Benevolent Association that New Jersey Statute 40A:14-129 requires the selection of superior officers, including chief, from the membership of that department.
On Jan. 2, the Maplewood Township Committee agreed to select the next chief from an internal pool of candidates, and the next day, a notice was posted announcing that it would be interviewing candidates for the position, with a application deadline of Jan. 31.
Both DeVaul and Kisch were interviewed by the committee March 3. For the community meeting on March 5, each candidate appeared separately and was given 15 minutes to introduce himself and his goals for the department should he be selected as the next chief. Following this, each candidate was given 30 minutes for a question-and-answer session with community members.
DeVaul, who addressed the audience first, began by highlighting his deep roots in both the community and the Maplewood Police Department. A Troop 5 Eagle Scout and 1987 graduate of Columbia High School, DeVaul rose through the ranks of the MPD and held the positions of patrol officer, detective, sergeant, lieutenant before serving as the acting chief. As a sergeant he oversaw the Juvenile Aid Bureau, and as a lieutenant he headed the Detective Unit.
DeVaul also emphasized some of the changes he has already made within the department since being appointed the acting chief, such as the creation of a police chaplain program.
“I realized that we have all of these community members who are clergy members, and they were being underutilized,” he said. “In meeting with them, it was clear that they are very eager to help the department. Having a police chaplain program also helps with critical incident debriefing so that the officers have an external party that they can talk to at the end of the day and don’t have to take work home with them.”
According to DeVaul, he has been putting a great deal of emphasis on juvenile justice reform and will continue to do so if appointed police chief.
“I’m currently working with the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice to ensure that this is done properly,” he said. “If we are able to successfully implement the station house adjustments, Maplewood will be one of the first towns in the state to do so, and we can have the community be more involved in reform and keep our youth from being involved in the criminal justice system.”
DeVaul also believes the department needs to do more to empower its officers; he has made some adjustments already and seeks to make others, if appointed chief.
“Seven officers were recently promoted, three of them to the position of lieutenant. The department is transforming and I am seeing an improvement in morale,” he said. “I empowered the officers, gave them the authority to make decisions, and they are doing it well.”
DeVaul also seeks to implement better data tracking, the establishment of a professional standards unit, attention to school traffic and greater diversity within the department.
“We need a better data tracking system, so I budgeted for us to do e-ticketing, which will track basic demographic information and will also be a cost-effective measure because it will save an officer time from having to enter data twice,” DeVaul said. “Of the three recently promoted officers, three are African-American; 31 percent of our department is made up of women or minorities.”
DeVaul acknowledged that the department has an uphill battle to regain the trust of the community following the many negative interactions that have been reported in recent years, but he is confident that they can do it.
“The police department can’t force the relationship with the community, all we can do is give the opportunity for it to happen,” he said.
Community members had a many questions for DeVaul, including how the data tracking information would be used, and what steps he would take as police chief to foster better community relations and ensure that his officers receive the necessary training to have more positive interactions with the citizens.
“The data tracking system will show race and gender, and the record management system would track when a person is stopped on the street or a complaint is called in,” he said. “This information would be used to review if the outcome is an arrest or a summons, and if there are any patterns that are showing up for a particular officer.”
A member of SOMA Action shared an incident from December 2017 when she and other members of the organization were singing politically-themed holiday carols by the Maplewood Train Station and were forced to leave by a Maplewood police officer. The resident questioned what training officers would receive in the future to ensure that First Amendment rights are not violated.
DeVaul said the officer received training on how to better handle the situation in the future, and an internal investigation was also conducted following the incident.
Community members also asked how the MPD planned to move forward following the misconduct that occurred in July 2016. DeVaul acknowledged that mistakes were made under Cimino and he takes full responsibility as acting chief to ensure that it never happens again.
“We now have a peer support program in place, in addition to the police chaplain program, and we want to work more with the youth in the community,” he said. “The schools have been asking for us to get more involved with them, and we make sure the officers receive training on working with youth populations and discussions happen with the school before they are placed there.”
Kisch also hails from a storied Maplewood background as a 1986 Columbia High School graduate with approximately 12 different addresses in town during his time here; he has followed in his father’s footsteps to become a second-generation member of the Maplewood Police Department.
At the beginning of his introduction, Kisch advised the audience that he wasn’t looking for their vote, but rather their feedback because, whether appointed chief or not, he wanted to know how he could better serve the community.
“I’ve been with the Maplewood Police Department for 23 years, my wife is from South Orange, and we decided to relocate to Cranford to have a little distance from work and being in the public eye,” Kisch said.
Kisch said that during his more than two decades as an officer, he cherishes most the time he spent as a resource officer.
“My most memorable time on the force is the time I spent at Maplewood Middle School as a resource officer. I wish that I had one when I was in school, because the middle school years were a hard time in my life,” he said. “My philosophy is that everything an officer does is important, whether it’s helping someone cross the street or directing after-school traffic.
“I don’t want just a community policing unit, I want a community policing department,” he continued. “I want to have a police department where every officer sees the bigger picture of each task they perform, no matter how small. I don’t want us to just be building a wall — I want us building a cathedral.”
Kisch said that, if he is appointed chief, one of his first orders of business would be to reach out to establish positive relationships and repair any that are broken.
“Within my first 30 days in the position, I will reach out to every community group that has ever had an issue with MPD and I want to have a dialogue with them, but I want to do it constructively and as a partnership, so that it leads to action and not just talk,” he said.
As with DeVaul, community members questioned Kisch on what training would be provided to officers, especially in light of the events of July 2016.
“The Maplewood Township Committee has doubled our training budget, so the major ones that we have been sending the officers to are focused on de-escalation and cultural sensitivity. Right now our training records are sporadic and all over the place, and I don’t want that anymore, I want continuity,” he said. “In a few years, different topics might be more relevant to be trained on, but these are the ones that we see a need for right now.”
Regarding the increased number of resource officers in the schools, community members asked how these officers will be trained to ensure that their interactions with students, particularly students of color and the LGBTQ community, will be positive and affirming.
“We were not placed in the schools to discipline or to arrest, we were placed there to be the wind in their sails and provide extra support to those who need it,” Kisch said. “We were tasked with providing after-school and summer programs for the students, and that’s what we did. We have to be invited into the school to be there, and therefore it has to be a partnership.”
Kisch also said he plans to bring back the Junior Police Academy and that, before any changes are made within the department, he would elicit community feedback.
“I don’t believe in reorganization for reorganization’s sake. I want to talk to the community about what they feel their needs are,” he said. “Before I make any changes, I would work with the special services and traffic units to make sure that no services are diminished. We need to be a department that responds to actions, and not based on what you look like or what part of town you live in.”
Kisch also addressed the many critiques made against the department regarding how long it took the department to release the videotapes of the July 5, 2016, incident.
“The delay was not due to the Maplewood Police Department not wanting to release the tapes. It is at the discretion of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and we have to follow their direction,” he said. “Once we did receive permission to release the tapes, we didn’t have enough officers to handle all of the Open Public Record Act requests that came in, and four new officers have since been trained on how to do that. Also, the faces of the minors on the tapes who were bystanders needed to be blurred to protect their identity and we did not have the software to do that. When it was purchased, officers had to be trained on how to use it so that the tapes could be edited properly.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier