MPD addresses ‘Force Report’ at forum

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Officials and residents gathered at The Woodland on Jan. 14 to discuss the “Force Report,” NJ Advance Media’s 16-month investigation and analysis of how often municipal police departments in New Jersey used force from 2012 through 2016, the recent years with the most complete data. According to the report, the Maplewood Police Department had the highest use of force rate in the state during that time. Chief Jimmy DeVaul, Deputy Chief Albert Sally and Committeeman Greg Lembrich led a panel that fielded questions from the public along with Erin Scherzer, chairwoman of the newly created Community Board on Police, and Tom Eicher, head of the Office of Public Integrity & Accountability Unit in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

Maplewood’s issues with its police force have become well-known over the last few years after video was released showing officers using what has been called “excessive force” on black teens following a township Independence Day fireworks display on July 5, 2016. Changes to the department ensued; DeVaul replaced Robert Cimino as chief, a new deputy chief and captain were hired, more officer training was implemented, and the Community Board on Police was created to allow residents to review police data and activity and make recommendations to the township.

“We’re proud of what we do. We’re proud of our police. We just want to make it better,” Mayor Vic DeLuca said at the beginning of the meeting. “We want to learn from this experience; we wanted to do things better and we want to make sure that everyone who has an interaction with our police department is treated fairly. That’s what’s critical for us and that’s the goal that we are going to move towards.”

DeVaul, who became chief after the years studied in the “Force Report,” began his comments by discussing the “use-of-force form.”

“The form is required by the state for us to fill out anytime an officer uses force,” he said at the meeting. “It’s by attorney general guidelines as well as a departmental policy. This form in particular is created by the Attorney General’s Office.”

DeVaul also explained that use of force is determined by each police department in the state, which is why some departments have a higher number of force reports than others; what is considered force in one department might not be considered force in another.

“Our policy requires that in all instances when an officer applies a weapon or uses physical force to any degree, the officer shall file a report,” he said. “So that is much more inclusive — or, depending on how you look at it, restrictive — on when you would fill out this report. Our numbers would be more than others, but that philosophy is anytime that somebody is noncompliant or any time that we have to take some action, that we want it reported. That is in the best interest of the officer as well as the department.”

Maplewood resident Jim Nathanson asked if town officials could shed some light on why the MPD filed so many use-of-force reports from 2012 through 2016.

Eicher, who has worked for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office since September and spent 15 years before that in the New Jersey Division of the United States Attorney General’s Office, reiterated that not all police officers and departments define force the same way, which contributes to the disparity between use-of-force reports in the NJ Advance Media report.

“Not all departments defined use of force the same,” Eicher said at the meeting in response. “So we know for a fact that there were departments that said, ‘Unless I throw the person on the ground, I’m not going to fill out a report.’ I understand that this department said ‘No, if you put hands on them, I want to know that.’ But what some of the consequences are is that you’re going to have many more uses of force than departments that defined that use of force otherwise.”

Eicher clarified that this is not the only reason Maplewood topped the list of using force in the “Force Report,” but said it certainly contributed. For that reason, DeVaul said that he was not surprised to see the results of the investigation.

In addressing the changes he has made to the department since becoming chief in April 2018, DeVaul said that he abolished the Street Crimes Unit, which made arrests and looked for suspicious activity, which DeVaul said he didn’t find necessary. The officers in that unit were reassigned to other units and a traffic bureau took its place. At the meeting, Sally said the elimination of the Street Crimes Unit would lower the number of use-of-force reports filled out by officers.

DeVaul also said that improving the relationship between the MPD and the young people in town is one of his priorities moving forward. He eliminated making arrests in schools unless it is absolutely necessary, began a restorative justice program to prevent juveniles from being charged with crimes when possible, and started a community service bureau that handles interactions with minors. DeVaul said that those initiatives have created more accountability for officers when they know they have full responsibility of a case instead of previously, when it would be under the jurisdiction of several levels of police officers.

According to Lembrich, the Township Committee’s liaison to the Public Safety Committee, that accountability was missing July 5, 2016. In addition to the changes DeVaul has made, all officers now wear body cameras to aid the department in filling out incident reports.

“There were 10 officers who were disciplined as a result of the July 5, 2016, incident,” Lembrich said at the meeting. “None of them filed use-of-force reports and in some cases that is specifically what those officers were disciplined for. There was a failure to file a report when they should have and that certainly was a problem in the system.”

Body cameras are another way officers are now held accountable, Lembrich said.

“The data is only as good as the source,” he said. “In order to have accurate data about when force is being used and how force is being used, officers need to report that. This really brought home the fact that you will face discipline for failure to file a report; even if your use of force was found to be reasonable and justified under the circumstances, the failure to file a report will itself result in discipline.”

MPD Capt. Kevin Kisch addressed department training at the meeting, saying that, since the township doubled the department’s training budget, officers have been doing situational and de-escalation training to reduce the need for officers to use force, thus reducing the number of use-of-force reports they fill out.

“We want officers to think about de-escalation and use of force in a thoughtful, cerebral way,” Kisch said. “We’re trying to tell our officers that they’re not trying to be right just because they’re the police and they have the authority to be there and they have the authority to arrest someone. They’re looking for a resolution, and that’s what we’re trying to lead our officers down the path of.”

Kisch also talked about the scenario-based training MPD officers undergo that takes into account that the need to use force is subjective.

“We can go and find examples of things where officers do things well and de-escalate and do not have to use force,” he said. “We can discuss them and each officer can look at it from their own life, because use of force is subjective. We do remind officers that an officer that may be 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds may perceive a threat differently than an officer that is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds.”

Audrey Rowe, program director for the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, asked the panel about the selection process when the department is looking to hire new officers. She wanted to know what the MPD is looking for in potential candidates.

“We’re looking for people that are residents, or residents of the county that are familiar with the neighborhood,” Sally answered. “We also want to make sure the officers that we hire are diverse and show the diverse population of the township.”

DeVaul added that the department is extremely selective in whom it hires as an officer — in the last round of hiring, department officials interviewed 25 potential candidates and only hired two of them. In addition, he talked about the two psychological tests that candidates must pass, one written and one with a doctor.

Shannon Cuttle, a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, who clarified that they were not speaking at the meeting on behalf of the BOE, asked about officers’ records at previous places of employment.

“We know that, within the state of New Jersey and in some other states, that when police move from one job assignment to another, their full record may not follow them,” Cuttle said. “What that can sometimes entail is that perhaps an officer who could potentially be hired may or may not have had a negative impact in their employment history. How can we ensure best practices?”

DeVaul said that, in addition to the psychological testing and interview process, the department does extensive background checks on potential new officers. Home visits and interviews with neighbors and family members are part of the process to ensure that candidates would be a good fit for the MPD. DeVaul also said that the department doesn’t rush when looking to hire.

Kisch said the only way to move the department forward is by continuing to improve in all areas.

“Complacency is what will be the doom of this department and this community and the bridge that we’re developing,” he said. “Once we feel as if we’re making headway and we’re proud of the progress we’re making, that just means that we have to work hard with our officers and also with the community more.”

Because the most recent statistics that the “Force Report” included were from 2016, DeVaul gave the community an update on where the department has been in the last two years. He said 2017 saw similar numbers, while 2018 saw a drop in use-of-force reports filed — by about half.

“This department had a chief for 17 years and it was time for a change for everybody, everything and expectations,” he said. “That’s exactly what I did. I think that that is a product of the changes that we made. We have not changed the standards. We’re looking at a better educated and more thoughtful department.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic