SOPD addresses use of force in public meeting

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Many members of the South Orange community gathered at the Jan. 28 Board of Trustees meeting for a presentation from police Chief Kyle Kroll on the disheartening statistics about police use of force released in New Jersey Advance Media’s “Force Report” this winter. While the presentation, which was followed by a question-and-answer session and a discussion, provided additional information, many residents who spoke at the meeting criticized the presentation and the subsequent discussion, arguing that it came off as defensive and that village leaders were too hesitant to admit that South Orange has a problem with policing and racism. In response, each trustee at the meeting said that there was a problem, but some added that the South Orange police force does a good job on the whole.

After investigating for 16 months, filing 506 Open Public Records Act requests, collecting 72,607 use-of force reports, and spending more than $30,000 for its investigation and data compilation, NJ Advance Media released “The Force Report,” a comprehensive database 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 has the highest use-of-force rate of in the entire state and in South Orange the police are nearly nine times more likely to use force on a black person than on a white person. Maplewood Township held a community meeting to discuss the report Jan. 14.

According to “The Force Report,” in a ranking of highest incidences of use of force in New Jersey municipal police departments, including the New Jersey State Police, South Orange ranked No. 83 and serious racial disparities were found. According to “The Force Report,” from 2012 through 2016, there were 104 total uses of force, with 45.2 incidents per every 1,000 arrests. The report also states that 35 South Orange police officers used force during the five years — the average number of full-time officers during the five years was 47; and there was an average of 3 incidents per officer who used force during the five years, which is worse than the statewide average of four incidents per officer.

The report concluded that, based on population, a black person in South Orange is 844 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person, and that, based on arrests, a black person in South Orange is 88 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person.

But Kroll re-evaluated these numbers in his comprehensive presentation Jan. 28, and village President Sheena Collum made clear that this meeting was just the beginning of a process to engage with the community regarding police use of force in South Orange.

“Obviously this is a first step. We are going to be welcoming comments, any questions that you have, suggestions, ways you can get involved as we go through this presentation,” Collum said, adding her gratitude for South Orange Police Department leadership, who worked with New Jersey Advance Media as its reporters compiled the report. “I want to thank our South Orange Police Department primarily because they welcomed the opportunity to work with reporters and meet with people working for NJ.com and New Jersey Advance Media. I know our chief and lieutenant for internal affairs spent substantial time working with the reporters, answering their questions.”

As a next step, the village is looking for community volunteers to partner with the village to identify ways to strengthen community engagement in all matters regarding fair and equal policing in the village. To volunteer, visit https://goo.gl/forms/FLxYn5KMcmileZl13.

Collum also thanked New Jersey Advance Media for taking the initiative to compile this report, which would not have been possible for reporters to do before now because the New Jersey Supreme Court only ruled that use-of-force reports must be attainable to the public approximately 16 months ago.

“My appreciation goes out to them for opening our eyes, and allowing communities to have these conversations at the local level, and also helping us transform some state level policies,” Collum said. “If every single municipality at the local level took the time and put the commitment and effort into breaking down data so that everyone of their residents understands what’s happening on the ground in their community, that’s going to lead to a greater level of accountability and transparency across the board.”

It was an effort by the village and SOPD to break down the data that led to the Jan. 28 presentation, which lasted more than an hour.

Early on in the presentation, Kroll disagreed with how “The Force Report” defined one type of force: the compliance hold. According to “The Force Report,” “A compliance hold is a painful maneuver using pressure points to gain control over a suspect.” Kroll argued that compliance holds should not be painful.

“Compliance hold, as it states here, I have to take a little bit of an issue with, because it says ‘a compliance hold is a painful maneuver’ — that’s actually not correct. That may be correct in the definition that they use, but simply holding someone’s arms or getting someone’s arms behind their back so they can be safely handcuffed is not necessarily a maneuver that will put any pain on someone,” Kroll said. “For example, if you were to bear hug somebody that was having an episode or didn’t want to be arrested or what have you, that has to be taken into custody, that would be construed under our reporting as a compliance hold but yet it would not fit that description. … The definition how New Jersey Advance Media put it out there, and I’m not saying that’s incorrect or not, but on our part, a compliance hold does not mean that it is a painful maneuver.”

Kroll also pointed out a flaw in the use-of-force report form, which conflates using “hands” and “fists” into one category; according to Kroll, you have to use hands to handcuff someone, but fists are quite different and imply striking. Kroll also pointed out that in the five years of compiled “Force Report” data, as well as in the data from 2017 and 2018 added to his presentation, SOPD officers used a baton strike only once — to knock a knife out of the hand of an individual actively robbing someone — and pepper spray was used just four times; SOPD officers do not have stun guns; and in his 30 years with the SOPD, officers have never shot and killed anyone.

According to Kroll’s presentation, from 2012 through 2018, the SOPD made 1,755 arrests. Of those, 1,247 arrestees, or 71 percent, were black; 476 arrestees, or 27 percent, were white; and 32 arrestees, or 2 percent, were “other,” which includes Hispanics, Asians and anyone who does not fall into the first two categories.

In that same seven years, SOPD used force in just 4 percent of those arrests, with 70 use-of-force occasions involving 82 individuals. That means 96 percent of arrests occurred without incident. Of the 70 incidents, 61 were initiated by “call for service” to police and nine were self-initiated by police. “The Force Report” did not distinguish between “call for service” and self-initiated occasions, and Kroll said it is important to make that differentiation.

“Research has shown that the vast majority of officers that act unprofessionally, that go rogue, if we want to use that term, that police unjustly or are profiling, they’re done on acts of self-initiation. They’re not done on ‘calls for service.’”

Kroll’s data also showed that force used on individuals has been trending downward, with force used on 19 individuals in 2012, on 10 in 2013, on 17 in 2014, on 15 in 2015, on nine in 2016, on five in 2017 and on seven in 2018. The presentation also sought to highlight how many arrests do not involve force, showing that 95.4 percent of black arrestees, 95.9 percent of white arrestees and 90.3 percent of “other” arrestees were arrested without incident. In other words, one in every 22 black arrestees will have force used on them and one in every 24 white arrestees will have force used on them. Of course, the alarming aspect of these numbers remains that in that seven-year period, 890 black people were arrested as opposed to just 386 white people.

Kroll’s data in the presentation showed that force was used on 22 juveniles during arrests from 2012 through 2018; on nine juveniles in 2012, on two in 2013, on five in 2014, on four in 2015, and on two in 2018. Force was not used on any juveniles in 2016 or 2017. The alarming part again is that 363 black juveniles were arrested, as opposed to just 93 white juveniles and 24 “other” juveniles. Force was used on 21 of the black juveniles, or in one in 17 arrests, while force was not used on any of the white juveniles in the data; force was used on one “other” juvenile.” Kroll did point out during the presentation, however, that these numbers may need to be updated because he believes force was used on a white juvenile on Dec. 31, 2018. The report also detailed the ages of the juveniles arrested, which ranged from 14 to 17; the reasons for arrest, including carjacking, armed robbery and shoplifting; and reasons force was used, including failure to comply with officer requests, resisting arrest and assault.

Kroll also pointed out that of the 22 youths who had force used on them, seven — nearly one-third — were truant or should have been in school at the time of the encounter.

“I think one-third is a substantial number,” Kroll said. “I think schools need to play a bigger part in this.”

But resident Kelly Piccola argued that truancy rates are not the issue here — racial bias in the SOPD is. Maplewood resident Shannon Cuttle, who was recently sworn in as a Board of Education member, though not at the Jan. 28 meeting representing the board, agreed that truancy is a problem, but argued that the bigger problem is harsh discipline of truancy leading eventually to prison.

“The U.S. Department of Education has put out a report that said that 70 percent of black and brown students, of disenfranchised students, of marginalized students, that have been pushed into the school to prison pipeline have been due to harsh discipline practices and policies that the sole purpose is to ensure that they don’t have a fair shake and that’s not OK,” Cuttle said, also asking the SOPD to begin tracking when and why police enter South Orange schools — for any reason.

In another attempt to demystify “The Force Report,” Kroll detailed each use-of-force incident, including an incident description, why force was used, what type of force was used and how police response was initiated. To see this full account, view Kroll’s presentation online at www.southorange.org/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1561.

Kroll said that during this seven-year period, the SOPD has not “had one excessive use-of-force complaint, not by any individual, not by any witnesses, not by anyone.” Kroll also said that officers often respond to calls with little to no information and must use their training to make split-second decisions. According to Kroll, with the exception of just one use-of-force incident in this seven-year period, each instance of force was used in response to failure to comply to officers’ orders, resisting arrest or obstruction.

“The narrative out there is that the officer is determining the use of force. OK, you’re right that the officer is determining the use of force to a point — what he’s determining in that split second is the type he’s going to apply, but the individual in every one of these cases, the person who determined whether force was going to be applied or not was the individual and not the officer, and that’s clear in every one of our cases except one,” Kroll said. “The one that was not was an officer went to a call that was a disturbance between a father and daughter and he thought he was just there for safekeeping when suddenly the daughter attacked the father and he had to jump in and pull them apart and use force to secure the woman that was attacking her father.”

The presentation also detailed the training and initiatives being undertaken to further reduce use-of-force in the SOPD. There has been a focus on increasing diversity within the SOPD; since 2015, 10 of 15 new hires have been people of color. Also, bi-annual internal affairs training and use-of-force training has been implemented. There have also been initiatives implemented with the assistance of the N.J. Attorney General’s Office.

“In the past two years, every officer’s had to undergo de-escalation techniques, especially responding to people with special needs,” said Tom Eicher, director of the Office of Public Integrity & Accountability Unit in the N.J. Attorney General’s Office. “In 2017 and 2018, they were all required to take cultural diversity awareness training. … We need to make available not only discipline when it’s appropriate but also better training. If the training isn’t changing the outcomes, then it’s not effective.”

Additionally, Kroll initiated a partnership with the N.J. Institute for Social Justice to receive assistance in formulating a program to build stronger relationships between police and community, with a focus on people of color and youth. SOPD is also looking to partner with the Maplewood Police Department for training initiatives.

Resident William Graves asked if South Orange would consider creating a Community Board on Police, similar to Maplewood’s. Collum said she would “be totally open to that” and that she and Kroll have already begun discussing it.

This year, SOPD is also working to partner with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives to focus heavily on preventing conflict during calls.

“NOBLE focuses a lot on this, not only in New Jersey but throughout the United States, and their focus is trying to, through diversity training and enrichment of the officers and of course in the immediate communities where they serve, is to try to create a dialogue that helps people feel comfortable with police by creating environments that are not police- or conflict-type environments but non-police environments where you can actually sit with a police officer and have a good dialogue and interaction where you’re not dealing with police-type situations,” Patrol Division Sgt. Ernesto Morillo, who is SOPD’s point person with NOBLE, said. “Everything is going to hinge on whether you think we’re worthy of the authority you’ve given us to police your community and enforce the law and generally do our job as civil servants.”

Additionally, the department’s Youth Aid Bureau is continuing its efforts to engage youth in diversion programs to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice pipeline.

“I like to try to keep juveniles out of the public justice system, and we try to do that the best way we can,” Detective Bureau Lt. Brian McGuire, who handles juvenile matters, said. “We do have what we call ‘curbside adjustment’; I encourage our officers to do this. Most of our juvenile incidents we have in our town are drug/alcohol-related, theft/shoplifting-related, some property damage type of crimes, these types of incidents.”

McGuire said he often receives shoplifting calls involving South Orange Middle School students from the Rite Aid and he encourages SOPD officers to call the children’s parents rather than bring juveniles to the station.

“We also have what we call ‘stationhouse adjustment,’ which is pretty much more for property damage, maybe a bigger shoplifting,” he continued. “Sometimes the owners of these stores are adamant that they do want these juveniles charged, however, once brought in and after speaking to some of these owners of these stores, we can work things out.”

He explained that for drug/alcohol issues, he often has the juveniles write apology letters to their parents and an essay on the effects of controlled substances. He also involves the schools heavily, reaching out to school counselors as opposed to filing charges. He will also reach out to counselors or coaches from schools outside the South Orange-Maplewood School District, depending on where the juvenile lives.

Romesh Sukhdeo, first assistant prosecutor of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Officer, said he would like to see body cameras used throughout the county, both to protect the community and the officers.

“From 2012 to 2018, there wasn’t one incident where the South Orange police had actually killed anybody or actually shot anybody,” Sukhdeo said. “That’s a fairly good statistic in a lot of respects if you look at what has been happening nationwide.”

After this lengthy presentation, many community members in the audience remained unconvinced that they would see real change in the department.

“This is data that police departments and the NJ Attorney General have been collecting and supposedly reviewing since about 2001 and this data has been available for that long to local police departments for review and response, including our police department in South Orange. So, you knew about it, about the racial bias that it shows, and yet you said nothing about it to the community for that long,” resident Anita Gundanna said. “There are enough dangers in the world and I do not want the police to be one of those that my son needs to worry about because of the color of his skin. And really nothing that you’ve said tonight convinces me that you recognize the disproportionate risk you are placing on my son, on my husband and on my family.”

Collum and Eicher agreed it is disproportionate riskier for black people in town than for white people and promised to continue looking into ways to resolve this and make life better for everyone, regardless of skin color.

“I think it’s disturbing to everyone that the majority of people in South Orange are white and the majority of people arrested are black,” Eicher said.

“The statistics tell us the story,” Trustee Deborah Davis Ford said. “We don’t need these statistics to tell us in our personal experiences the implicit bias that exists. It’s systemic, and it’s everywhere. I’ve experienced it all my life. I’ve experienced where part of our right to passage as teenagers we are told that if we’re ever stopped while we’re going out what we need to do, how we need to act — we have to be very conscious of our behavior. It’s a thousand microaggressions that go on all the time and I’m appreciative of having this presentation today and I think it’s something that was long overdue.”

Resident James Davis proposed that South Orange emulate California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who took this type of data and compiled into a single real-time database accessible to the public. “Information is power; the problem is, you all have all the information, so we have no power at this point,” he said.

According to resident Bobby Brown though, real change will not happen until the SOPD stops hiding behind the data and confronts it.

“I heard a lot of the explanations that you shared tonight and I heard you do a great job. First and foremost, I don’t think anyone here would suggest the officers aren’t embarking on difficult job; you talked about the emotions of the job, responding to things with very little information — we all respect that and appreciate what you do,” Brown said, mainly addressing Kroll. “But you took issue with a lot of things. You went on and on in some of the explanations, you gave anecdotes,” Brown continued, adding that he was there to represent his two sons, ages 6 and 8. “The thing I did not hear you say was that we have a problem and here’s how we’re going to fix it and that to me is why I sat there emotional because I did go to the Maplewood exercise as well and heard them describe ‘The Force Report’ and I took comfort in hearing them say, ‘We have a problem and here’s how we’re going to fix it.’ You can run it through as many explanations as we want, but until we say, ‘We have a problem, this is how we are going to fix it,’ the problem is going to remain.

“You talked about your one incident,” Brown said to Kroll, referring to a story Kroll told of being ordered back into a car by a police officer when he was in his 20s. “I’m 43 years old and I couldn’t count how many incidents I’ve had. Until you have more data that you provide yourself, stop explaining away the data that’s already been done, and that’s what I heard a lot of today, and I don’t think it was done with any ill intent, you did it because you have a lot of officers here and you want them to know you got their back. I want to know that you have our backs, too.”

Kroll said he agreed with Brown’s statements and that the SOPD can do better — a statement he and other village officials made several times throughout the evening.

“I am as committed to this town just as much as any of you,” Kroll said. “This town goes down, we all go down. I don’t just ride off into the sunset, OK? I care. I want my legacy to be something that I left behind that I made this place better, and that I know won’t happen without the community behind me. We can always do things better, that’s what we’re trying to do here in South Orange. … We can never be complacent, we can always work harder.”

Brown also stressed that bias training needs to be done at a community level, in addition to with police; resident Jocelyn Cleary agreed.

“You talked about the vast number of arrests coming from calls for service, and Mr. Brown alluded to this, I would ask that you, Chief Kroll, take a leadership role in the community to explain when it is appropriate to call the police,” Cleary said. “We need to rethink the phrase ‘If you see something, say something.’ I think we need to define for the broader public what counts as something. A black child riding a bike downtown while eating a sandwich on a day when schools are closed is not something. I think we also need a new script for our dispatch officers to help this kind of nuisance call, because for black and brown people, when police are called, it is not a nuisance — too often in this country it means life or death.”

Kroll agreed with Cleary and relayed that some changes are beginning to take place. According to Kroll, approximately five weeks ago, an officer was informed that a caller was reporting a black man standing on the corner of her street and, rather than responding, the patrolman said into the microphone: “That’s it?”

Nevertheless, Maplewood resident Kelly Quirk, a member of SOMA Action, also took Kroll to task for appearing overly defensive.

“Black youth in this community matter. Black residents in this community matter. And we need to say that because those numbers of that arrest data are upsetting and they should be upsetting to everyone,” Quirk said. “The only way we do better is if we sit and we talk about the data and we leave some of the defensiveness behind. We can do better and I’m just sitting here feeling that there’s a lot of defensiveness and the only way we’re going to do better is if there is a systematic review in real time going forward on an ongoing basis. At this point let’s just fix it and let’s just stop with the defensiveness.”

South Orange resident Khalil Muhammad asked for more discussion from the board, and specifically to hear from Trustee Howard Levison, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

“It may not be perceived from the outside, but internally there are parsing of the data, parsing of the information, and in fact trying to weed out those who shouldn’t be within the force,” Levison said. “There have been a number of occasions where we have taken action with what we feel were not appropriate actions by certain officers. This is a continuing effort. I think we can do a better job of parsing the data and understanding more of what the information is about.”

Levison invited everyone interested to attend Public Safety Committee meetings, which are held the last Tuesday of every month and are open to the public.

Muhammad also pushed village officials to be more open about negatives in the SOPD.

“Police legitimacy is predicated on building trust with the community and that trust also has to come by way of admitting, not just in the abstract, that we can do better, which I keep hearing,” Muhammad said. “Give us kind of a rogues’ gallery of terrible police behavior in South Orange, and I say that because that is a really important part of establishing trust and being able to move forward and believe that the way you characterize things, the narratives you tell, are honest. We know that for the most part police like to tell happy stories about the lives they save, and of course they do … but just indulge us for a minute and be as good a storyteller of the terrible things that have happened in this department over the past eight years as you have done about the good things tonight.”

Kroll responded that he cannot talk about specific officers or terminations in public, but did say: “Are there officers that have been called to the carpet? Yeah, on more than one occasion. Some very severely and some have lost their jobs for serious things and this isn’t a forum where I’m going to discuss them.”

After hearing from several residents that they wanted to hear village officials admit that South Orange has a problem with racial bias, both in the community and in policing, officials responded.

“The statement that we need to say we have a problem — we have a problem,” Davis Ford said.

Trustee Walter Clarke admitted that, as a white man, he cannot fully know the struggles faced by his black neighbors, but that he does his best to empathize and sympathize.

“What we’re talking about is ultimately a much larger cultural phenomenon,” Clarke said, agreeing that there is a problem in South Orange.

“I also want to express my concern for this problem. The statistics are alarming and I think all of us feel that we do have a problem,” Trustee Karen Hilton said.

While Levison agreed that there is a problem with South Orange policing, he pointed it that is much more of a large-scale problem in the South Orange community.

“I do agree there is a problem, but I think it’s a systemic problem — it’s on both sides, both the police as well as the community,” Levison said. “I don’t know if statistics are going to show us all the things that need to be done, because there is a lot of information that is unreported, as the chief had indicated before, and that’s the kind of information we need to understand of what is happening internally, how we’re reacting and that it’s not a biased situation.”

Collum took a hard stance, calling out the Trump Administration in her remarks.

“We kept talking about implicit bias. In this town we have racism, blatant racism that needs to be called out for what it is. This is not just a matter of ‘I’m a little scared because I saw a person of color,’ this is people targeting people of color. We see this in our schools, in our housing policy, in our education. It is so beyond just South Orange and everyone should be pissed off,” she said. “Things didn’t start changing with the use-of-force report, they started in 2016, when that guy got elected to the White House. If you start looking at when some of these programs started taking effect, and I will give a nod to Chief Kroll here, is that we started seeing an America that I didn’t recognize, that I can’t even be proud of right now, and so we’re seeing activism at all levels of local government that I don’t think we ever believed we would be talking about.

“We’re talking about our community values being under attack right now and that is why we are seeing the fury, the fury and the passion and the activism from our residents,” Collum continued. “The fact that anyone comes into this community and feels they are not going to have fair and equal policing is unacceptable, we have to be able to say that black lives matter, we have to be able to raise the transgender flag and celebrate the LGBTQ community, we need to be able to say that women’s rights are human rights.

“Our chief tonight did a great job and what sometimes comes across as defensive, and I recognize that too. I almost grabbed his arm a couple of times, because I know he stays up late thinking about these things. I’ve seen him be very emotionally touched by what he’s heard from residents; I know that he is always very proud when he is talking to other chiefs about creating a guide on eradicating racial profiling. NJ.com would tell you that he was the only chief to talk about implicit bias during his interview and true racism in policing,” she concluded “So am I proud of where we are in New Jersey? No. Am I proud of where we are in this local community having to have this conversation right now? Absolutely not. But I’m very optimistic that we had all these people out here tonight and its 11:30 p.m. and people are agreeing to get this job done and we are going to work together.”

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