TC appoints DeVaul as new police chief

File Photo
The Maplewood Township Committee voted 4-1 to appoint Jimmy DeVaul as the next police chief. Above, Devaul speaks about his plans for the department at a Hilton Neighborhood Association meeting in January.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — As part of the promised culture change in the Maplewood Police Department, the Maplewood Township Committee appointed acting Chief Jimmy DeVaul as the new police chief at the April 3 committee meeting.

DeVaul was chosen with a vote of 4-1; Committeeman Greg Lembrich supported the other police chief candidate, Lt. Kevin Kisch. DeVaul was sworn in April 4, though there will be a public swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, April 17.

The April 3 meeting was filled with community members supporting the two candidates and a new ordinance that would establish a community board to review designated police activity within Maplewood. The board would make recommendations to the Maplewood Township Committee about how best to improve relations between the MPD and the community.

These changes have come about as a result of the July 5, 2016, altercation between Maplewood police officers and local teenagers. Video and audio recordings released approximately one year later show police using excessive force on rowdy teenagers. Recordings also show former Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino ordering officers to push the teenagers into Irvington; though most of the teenagers were actually Maplewood residents, it is believed the request stemmed from the fact that the majority of the teens were black. Cimino retired effective Jan. 1, after being placed on administrative leave.

In order to move forward and begin correcting some of the issues detailed in the report submitted by Hillard Heintze, an independent firm the township brought in to investigate the police department and the July 5, 2016, incident, the Maplewood Township Committee selected DeVaul to helm the department.

“I have worked very hard over the past year to show the Township Committee and (township administrator Joseph) Manning that I was the right person at the right time for the job,” DeVaul told the News-Record on April 8. “I immediately recognized how difficult the task was going to be. The public wanted answers and accountability. I was going to be resented by members of the department for many reasons. The timing and circumstances could not have been worse for me. I took this opportunity head on. I accepted responsibility to change the culture of the department.

“My biggest struggle thus far has been the officers’ resistance to change and getting them to support my vision for the department moving forward. I get it though, when you have done things the same way for so long, change can be hard to accept. The fact is policing has changed and so shall we. I am holding my officers accountable for the way they treat people. I am raising the standards and expectations for our officers,” he continued. “I am conducting individual officer mentoring. I am trying to motivate officers by showing them there are better, more effective ways to interact with the public. At the same time, I have to run the day-to-day operations of the department.”

Like Kisch, DeVaul has deep roots in Maplewood. 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 and acting chief. As a sergeant he oversaw the Juvenile Aid Bureau and as a lieutenant he headed the Detective Unit. Since becoming acting chief, he has collaborated with the community to: change the culture of intimidation within the police department; address racial biases among officers; implement a mentoring program to support police officer applicants of color and those who are women; create a youth restorative justice program, and create a chaplain program for the department.

“Since August of last year, I’ve been impressed by DeVaul’s leadership skills and willingness to make changes in the department that will ensure another July 5, 2016, will never happen again,” DeLuca said. “He has restored working relationships with clergy members in the two towns and was a positive contributor during the planning of the community board on police.”

At the meeting, DeLuca also read aloud some of DeVaul’s quotes from the March 29 News-Record article, “Maplewood appoints six police chaplains,” in which DeVaul stressed the importance of dignity and respect for everyone, even those under arrest, and of reforming the department under a “community-first model.”

“DeVaul has been clear about the need for new and better training; he is advancing with a customer-relations training focus and has asked for additional dollars in the 2018 training budget,” DeLuca said. “He has a specific goal to institute a restorative justice program in dealing with our youth. He is working in partnership with civil rights and justice groups on this plan to positively work with young people.”

DeLuca also lauded DeVaul for his pedestrian- and traffic-safety plans, such as creating a dedicated unit for these issues.

“This is a quality-of-life problem that for a long time needed to be addressed by the police and wasn’t, but I believe DeVaul has a stronger and better plan to do so,” DeLuca said. “I want to salute both police chief candidates for their commitment to Maplewood and their work over the years on the police force. Their efforts have made our department better. In the end I have to make a choice between two deserving candidates and my choice is Jimmy DeVaul.”

Committeeman Dean Dafis said he trusts DeVaul to enact the “complete reboot” of the MPD that he deems necessary.

“No doubt this has been a very difficult decision,” Dafis said. “In difficult decisions in life, the important ones, especially ones like this, decisions that are borne out of a moral imperative to address grave inequities and bias in our community, borne out of a need to restore justice and to build new bridges of trust and collaboration — such decisions are indeed incredibly consequential and require thorough consideration.

“One of the two men, one for me stands out for his vision for the department, for the changes that need to be made on Day 1, structural changes to achieve a better working department; to fight crime and ensure public safety more efficiently and effectively while rebuilding trust with the community; necessary changes to existing personnel to give opportunity to those who haven’t had it, who weren’t favored before; changes to how we recruit new officers to the department; changes in training and professional development and professional standards; and changes in how the police interact with the community daily, the community that the police are entrusted with serving and protecting,” Dafis continued.

“The time is now for a new order, folks, to build a new culture in our police department. After we witnessed our children of color being herded out of town and beaten, there is no room for a wait-and-see approach. What are we waiting for? There’s no ‘let’s see what the community wants.’ The community has spoken loudly. They’ve marched, they’ve made demands and they’ve come to the table with a plan to start. They’re thirsty for action on Day 1.”

Dafis said he believes DeVaul is best able to effect these changes because of his realistic approach to the issues within the department.

According to Committeewoman Nancy Adams, the deciding factor for her was that Kisch had not submitted a plan for restructuring the department to address its many issues.

Both candidates were, as we know, homegrown and both very capable and qualified, and I think both proactive in the changes they would make to the department. Except, that wasn’t evident by Lt. Kisch, so I was disappointed that there was no plan from him for restructuring and addressing the issues we’ve all talked about here, so I think that is the main reason that I am going to be supporting acting Chief DeVaul tonight to be our next chief,” Adams said. “Because of his forward thinking and ability to structure and offer suggestions to this body on restructuring that will take away some of the issues that were part of the problem in the past, giving away his own authority to appoint people to make decisions of authority within the police department, I strongly support Chief DeVaul.”

According to DeVaul, he was pleased the selection process had given him the opportunity to discuss his plans for the department.

“As my wife Krista and I listened to members of the Township Committee on the night their selection was made, it became evident to me that they were very supportive and appreciative of my leadership over the past year,” DeVaul told the News-Record. “I entered the process knowing that Lt. Kisch was a very qualified candidate and that nothing was a given. I knew I would have to earn the job. I am honored and humbled to be selected as the next chief of the Maplewood Police Department.”

All that being said, DeVaul added that he must now work to move beyond the selection process.

“My top priority will be to put the selection process behind me, unite the officers, promote my vision of change and finally get back to work,” DeVaul said. “I am looking forward to meeting with our Clergy Alliance and putting our police chaplains to work. Our restorative justice initiative is going to change the way police and community members resolve juvenile matters.”

According to Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee, appointing DeVaul as chief is just a continuation of the committee’s pledge to fix the MPD.

“On Aug. 1, 2017, we the TC committed to changing the culture of our police department. There was a deep and clear concern regarding how our police department interacted and treated members of color within our community,” McGehee said, adding that under DeVaul’s leadership, 56 percent of recent hirings have been women and/or persons of color. “I think that it would be challenging to provide our community with the type of policing and police department culture we desire if the women and persons of color who wear the same uniform are not respected by all of their white peers.

“We have work to do. We need our entire police force to understand that the culture of the community which we aspire to achieve does not end at the doorstep of our police department, but actually must be one of its origin points,” he continued.

While Lembrich was also impressed by DeVaul, he gave his support to Kisch for the position of police chief. He too stressed the need for real change in the department.

July 5, 2016, occurred in the middle of my first year on the Township Committee; I was shocked and saddened by what occurred that night and committed myself in the aftermath of that incident to do whatever I could using the power of this office to make sure nothing like that ever happened in Maplewood again,” Lembrich, who chairs the township’s Public Safety Committee, said. “In the wake of July 5, I was appalled and dismayed to learn the extent of the dysfunction in our police department.

“Officers feared — but did not necessarily respect — the department’s leadership,” he continued. “Officers were afraid to speak up, whether to offer new ideas and suggestions or to question inappropriate or even arguably illegal orders for fear of reprisals. Certain officers were clearly favored over others, given preferential assignments, while others, specifically union leaders or others who challenged the chief’s decisions, were singled out for discipline or held back from opportunities that could have led to promotion. Officers lacked training in key areas like de-escalation and crowd control. Morale was terrible. Productivity was low. Officer turnover was high and there was significant division within the ranks. An environment of us vs. them was prevalent inside the department and that toxic us vs. them atmosphere unfortunately spilled over at times to relations between officers and the community. This was seen most clearly, though not exclusively, on the evening of July 5, 2016.”

Lembrich believes Kisch would have been the better choice to fix these issues.

“Kevin Kisch is a collaborative and collegial leader who is well-liked and highly respected by his fellow officers and also admired and trusted by the community,” Lembrich said. “These are assets that would be extremely valuable in a chief and work to make true progress toward the kind of police department we all wish to see. He can unify our officers behind his vision, motivate them to make the necessary changes to better serve all of our community and inspire confidence in our residents that the department is committed to protecting and serving everyone in Maplewood.”

Though Lembrich admitted that DeVaul had inherited a difficult situation when he was appointed acting chief in August, he does not feel he’d made enough headway since then to merit being named chief.

“There continues to be dissension in the department, with feelings of opposition between leadership and much of the rank and file,” Lembrich said. “Morale has not improved as I had hoped. The us vs. them attitude continues to be a strong presence in the department and I think it will be a barrier to overcoming divisions within the department, which will in turn be an obstacle to permanently improving relations with the community. If acting Chief DeVaul is chosen tonight, I sincerely hope that he proves me wrong and I pledge to do my best as a member of the Township Committee, as chair of the Public Safety Committee and as a resident to help him do so. But at the end of the day, I believe that Lt. Kisch gives us the best chance to raise morale in the department, to bring about the reform we need, implement effective community policing and restore the trust of the community in our police department.”

Despite ultimately choosing DeVaul, the majority of the Township Committee made many flattering comments about Kisch.

“We are fortunate to have two local candidates, both graduates of Columbia High School and both fiercely dedicated to their hometown,” DeLuca said prior to the vote. “Both have risen in the ranks, holding many positions from patrol officer to detective. Both have received extensive trainings over the years and earned numerous awards for their police work. I want to thank them for their service to Maplewood.”

“I look forward to the role in leadership that Lt. Kisch will bring in collaborating with acting Chief DeVaul to improve our culture internally in service to his hometown to make a difference, which we all want to achieve,” McGehee said prior to voting.

DeVaul also praised Kisch for his years of service. When asked if he had any words for the lieutenant, DeVaul said, “I would simply ask Lt. Kisch as a member of my command staff to work with me. I welcome his input and ideas. I need him to be part of making real change within the department.”

While most residents attended the meeting to speak about the proposed community board on police, some also spoke about the candidates.

“We have two fine candidates for the position of police chief. I believe either one of them would do a fantastic job,” resident John Sullivan said, before putting his support behind DeVaul.

“As a citizen, as a mother and as a lawyer, I feel the need in our community for restorative justice practices, which will address structural inequality and racism in our town and so I am so proud to support acting Chief DeVaul in this and I hope the township will appoint him to be the chief of police because I see someone who is putting into place programs we need,” resident Christine Taber-Kewene said.

Resident Gus Heningburg praised both candidates.

“I’ve known Jimmy and Kevin since before they were walking, both of them. Both are stand-up cats and I stand up for both of them. They’re both buddies of mine and I’ve got nothing but respect and love for both of those cats,” Heningburg said. “In terms of who they are as men, I’ve stood by them their entire lives, I’d stand by them again. We’ve been in some stuff growing up together for sure and they’ve looked after me and I’ve looked after them. That being said, best man wins, hallelujah, and they’ll both do a great job.”

In another step toward change, the committee passed Ordinance No. 2901-18 unanimously on first reading to create the Maplewood Community Board on Police. The board’s duties include: promoting a culture of transparency and accountability in the MPD; advocating on behalf of the community; researching and suggesting training programs and best practices; advocating for funding for training opportunities; reviewing MPD data to set benchmarks for measuring change in how the MPD interacts with the community; soliciting public feedback, and educating the public on laws and police matters.

According to the ordinance, the board will have seven voting members. SOMA Justice, SOMA Action and the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race will each have one Maplewood resident designee on the board. The board must also include a Maplewood resident who is between the ages of 16 and 21 at the time of their appointment. Lastly, three Maplewood residents will be selected from the community. Additionally, ex-officio members without a vote will include two members of the Maplewood Township Committee, a designee from the MPD and a designee from the administration.

“This was the product of several meetings that started out just talking about what it was we hoped to achieve, what were the goals, and then progressed through how we would operationalize that and then into the nitty-gritty of how we would put that into an ordinance. At every step of the way, the community groups were doing research, they were doing drafting and they were moving the process forward,” Lembrich said. “This is not the end; this is just the beginning of a new chapter in which our police will benefit from the expertise, the feedback, the research of our residents into best practices, into training.”

Many residents spoke at the meeting to support the creation of the board.

“I think we can all agree that this is a critical component in the fight against racial injustice and systematic racism that pervades not just our town but, as we know and we see every day, our entire country,” resident Kasia Piekarz, a member of SOMA Justice, said.

“It’s a step in the right direction. We all know that there is so much more that we would like this board to be able to do, but we know the limits of the state that we live in,” resident Erin Scherzer, a CCR trustee, said, adding that she hopes the collaboration that went into creating this ordinance will continue and serve as a template for future community dealings with the police.

Prior to passage on second and final reading, the Township Committee will hold a public hearing about the Maplewood Community Board on Police at its April 17 meeting.

Even with all the changes, elected officials and community members were adamant that these are only first steps in what needs to be a complete shift in Maplewood policing.

“It’s not over. This is just the beginning of the work. As we move away from what happened July 5, 2016, the urgency starts to fade,” resident Khadijah Costley White said. “I think we need to remember that this was urgent. I don’t ever want to see a video of local teens being herded that way. I don’t want to continue feeling that my 6’3” husband walking around in our neighborhood may be in danger of someone stopping him because he looks like a suspect. I want us to continue to be on the front lines of this. And I want us to remember that we are not fighting against the police; we’re fighting because if they’re doing their jobs well then it serves us and it serves them.”