IRVINGTON, NJ — On Friday, Jan. 25, acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens II issued a public response to the recent “Force Report,” published by NJ Advance Media, which details the results of the media outlet’s five-year study on the use of force by New Jersey police.
Stephens said his office has been “carefully reviewing” the recent report.
“Use of force by law enforcement, while sometimes necessary, must be carefully reviewed to maintain public confidence in law enforcement,” said Stephens on Friday, Jan. 25. “To maintain the trust of the community, law enforcement leaders must ensure transparency in all investigations concerning the use of force. As evidenced by the December 2018 joint statement of Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey and other law enforcement groups, this office remains committed to ensuring that all incidents involving the use of force are properly reviewed.”
Stephens said the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office “will continue to work with the Office of the Attorney General to maintain and enhance public confidence in law enforcement.” He also announced his office will be meeting with all municipal law enforcement agencies in Essex County and reaffirming Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2005-1, which prohibits the practice of “racially-influenced policing.”
“As the chief law enforcement officer in Essex County, the prosecutor is committed to working with all county and local law enforcement agencies in the county, to provide training and ensure that all guidelines and directives are adhered to,” said ECPO Chief Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Fennelly on Friday, Jan. 25. “Since this directive was originally issued, an entire new generation of law enforcement officers have been hired. The reissuing of this directive, along with periodic training updates, demonstrates that this office is firmly committed to the prohibition on ‘racially-influenced policing’ and will further help to maintain the public’s confidence.”
Several current and former elected officials and members of law enforcement echoed Stephens’ sentiments about the “Force Report.”
“I echo the sentiments of the prosecutor and attorney general,” said Irvington Public Safety Director Tracy Bowers on Monday, Jan. 28. “As the director of Public Safety, I don’t condone any improper use of force. The Irvington Police Department will work with the Prosecutor’s Office on the subject of use of force.”
Former Irvington police Chief Michael Chase agreed with Bowers and Stephens but also said he believes the decision to reaffirm Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2005-1 with newer cops and officers is unnecessary.
“Everybody knows the Attorney General Guidelines. They learn it in the Police Academy,” said Chase on Sunday, Jan. 27. “There was no need to reissue the use of force. They get trained on use of force biannually.”
Other than that, Chase said, overall, he believes it is good to focus on properly training new recruits and younger police officers.
“I think policing is a grueling job,” said Chase. “We get paid to do what we do, we’re trained to do what we do, so we should be able to do it with a modicum of restraint. Every time there’s a fatal shooting or other fatal event, the Prosecutor’s Office comes out. If it’s de facto, then how can they increase or improve it? If your people come out, then a review is automatic.”
The only thing really in question, based on Stephens’ remarks, Chase said, is how recent advances in technology fit with use of force.
“What happened to the body cams? What happened to this great move to verify and support probable cause with technology?” asked Chase. “When I was last in service, there was a great push for those things. The system doesn’t want to impinge on a cop’s ability to do his job and catch the bad guy. Where there’s injustice there’s no peace of mind.”
“Our police force is a reflection of the people who make up the city of East Orange and we are committed to providing the men and women of our police division with ongoing training that will ensure they continue to conduct themselves at the highest level of professionalism and integrity,” said Mayor Ted R. Green on Tuesday, Jan. 29. “Our ultimate goal is to foster mutual cooperation and trust that makes both residents and our police officers feel safe.”
Orange City Council President Kerry Coley, a retired police officer, agreed with that sentiment as well.
“I agree with Prosecutor Stephens that an entire new generation of law enforcement officers have been hired since this Directive 2005-01 was issued and should be updated and held accountable for any infractions of this directive,” Coley said Monday, Jan. 28. “We live in a litigious society, where you can be sued for anything, especially law enforcement officers.”
Former Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr. also agreed with Stephens. A former member of the West Orange Police Department, he worked full time as a police officer in that neighboring town while running for mayor of Orange and continued to do so for an extended period of time after he was elected.
“With respect to the recent press release by acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens, he was a judge appointed in the city of Orange while I was mayor,” said Hawkins on Monday, Jan. 28. “As such, I have the utmost respect for his ability to get the job done and have every confidence he will take the necessary steps to move Essex County forward, in light of the recent use of force report by Advance Media.”
“The ‘Force Report’ is very revealing and our unit’s Criminal Justice Committee will be interacting with local police departments to be a sure that the appropriate training is being done and has been done to a sure that the rights of citizens in our catchment communities are being addressed,” said Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear, an East Orange resident, on Monday, Jan. 28. “It will be important to ascertain whether the police officers who have been identified in the report as having used excessive force … were addressed with the appropriate training and what was the response by the Internal Affairs Office.”
Puryear said that since Stephens had issued a public statement about the “Force Report” he would also like to see him make a statement about Assembly Bill No. A3115, which aims to ensure impartiality in the investigation of police-involved deaths in New Jersey. That bill was co-sponsored by East Orange resident Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake with Assemblyman Benji Wemberly. The legislation was already passed by the state Senate and Assembly and is waiting for Murphy’s signature.
According to People’s Organization for Progress Chairman Larry Hamm, even if Murphy does not sign the bill, it will become an official law in New Jersey, as long as he does not veto it. But Hamm, Puryear and others said they want Murphy to sign it.
“Prosecutor Stephens’ remarks only reflects on the ‘Force Report,’” said Puryear on Monday, Jan. 28. “There is no mention of the independent prosecutors legislation that has been proposed. It would be very important to know what our acting county prosecutor thinks about the independent prosecutor in cases of the fatalities.”
Bishop Reginald Jackson, the former minister at St. Matthew AME Church in Orange, agreed with Puryear. Jackson is best known for leading the fight against racial profiling in New Jersey while he served as both pastor and president of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council, a fight that resulted in state laws prohibiting this practice.
“In response to the attorney general’s concern about appointment of a special prosecutor, inferring ill will on the part of law enforcement, this suspicion already exists among minorities, who for decades have lived in fear and distrust because of it,” said Jackson on Sunday, Jan. 27. “Bias and ill will is what caused racial profiling. From the data reported in NJ Advance, it is clear that Ill will does exist in law enforcement. Clearly not all law enforcement, but one is too many and there is much more than one.”