Former NAACP president addresses ‘Force Report’ at community meeting

Kathleen Witcher urged people to demand solutions and not tolerate problems, where victims are blamed before evidence of their innocence may be determined. She said, when officers are set free and not tried, not even indicted, the tone sours and observers lose faith in the criminal justice system.

IRVINGTON, NJ — State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s comments about the NJ Advance Media “Force Report” — the result of the media outlet’s five-year study on the use of force by New Jersey police — on Saturday, Feb. 2, during the panel discussion at the community meeting of the Church of the Oranges Community on Reynolds Terrace in Orange, drew a quick response from local community leaders.

“For our communities in the state and in the country, the shootings of men, women and children climbing, a different approach to policing is necessary,” Kathleen Witcher, a former Irvington NAACP president, said Tuesday, Feb. 5. “People will only begin to trust law enforcement when they feel safe and secure and not feel intimidated or under siege. We must stop the ‘Blue Wall of Silence.’”

Bishop Reginald Jackson, the former pastor of St. Matthew AME Church in Orange, who brought racial profiling into the national consciousness as the leader of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, agreed with Witcher. He also agreed with Grewal that greater transparency, accountability and police training and retraining are necessary.

“Bias and ill will is what caused racial profiling,” said Jackson on Monday, Feb. 4. “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.”

Grewal acknowledged these concerns when he participated in the Feb. 2 panel discussion about criminal justice reform, community policing and marijuana legalization. He took part in the panel alongside New Jersey State Police Commander Col. Patrick Callahan, the Rev. E.T. Stoddard of the Church of the Oranges, Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren and Derrick Green, the senior advisor on diversity, faith, urban and regional growth in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration. Although the “Force Report” was not on the panel’s list of topics at the meeting, Grewal mentioned it during his remarks.

“Recent newspaper reporting has shown that there are issues with use of force across the state,” Grewal said. “For 17 years, the Attorney General’s Office collected use of force data from all of our departments and they diligently reported it. But for 17 years, the Attorney General’s Office never standardized that reporting. They never made it easy for the department to report and, guess what, they didn’t do anything with it.”

Grewal said that lack of leadership and accountability from his predecessors allowed problem officers and departments to operate without proper oversight and opened the door for the media and NJ Advance Media, to use the information to compile the “Force Report.”

“They didn’t use it as a tool for training or as a tool for accountability or as a tool for trust and, what happened was, you had a 17-month investigation by a newspaper that highlighted all the deficiencies in our system, all the problems and put that information out there for the public to see,” Grewal said. “When I saw that, I said, ‘We should be doing that.’

“This is a problem that we created, that we didn’t have a way to collect this data, to analyze it and also, importantly, to put it into context. Because it has to be an apples-to-apples comparison, in fairness to law enforcement officers. Because some departments have higher numbers than others, but you can’t say that department is worse than another department without understanding that Atlantic City deals with 10 million people coming in — or probably millions more each year — to the casinos, and so their numbers are probably skewed by that. Or Paramus Mall, (which) has the busiest shopping mall in the world, and that’s where some of their incidents come from.”

Grewal said, although the “Force Report” shed a somewhat negative light on law enforcement, he and the governor view it as an opportunity to address longstanding issues and build better bonds with the public.

“We have to develop this system and we’ve started that process, but it is my goal to get that system in place by the end of the year, so that we can use that as a way to hold problematic officers accountable, to improve problematic officers where they can be improved and also to build trust, because we want to share that information publicly,” Grewal said.

“It shouldn’t be a newspaper that does that. That’s my job, as the chief law enforcement officer. … And we’ll continue having those dialogues, because we need to hear what the community’s concerns are with law enforcement, so we can better track those concerns and we can use those concerns, to build out this system.”

Grewal said it’s essential that law enforcement build better relations with communities, because they need their help to change the criminal justice system and promote real social justice.

“That’s that coalition that I was talking about, because we have to do this together,” he said. “Also, to build trust between law enforcement and community, we set up an office this year called the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability. The goal of that office is not to just hold law enforcement accountable for criminal civil rights violation, but also to hold public officials accountable. … Over the last half century, the mayors of every one of our major five cities in this state have been indicted on public corruption charges and, in some cases, multiple mayors in the same cities, one after the next. And so we’re sending a strong message that we’re going to hold not just law enforcement accountable, (but) all public officials accountable, to restore trust in government.”

Grewal also said his office has “mandated, for the first time ever, implicit bias training for every state trooper.”

“We’re going to then push it out and require it from all of our 30,000-plus law enforcement officers in this state, because all of their interactions have to be free from bias and they have to be trained to recognize that implicit bias — that unconscious bias that all of us have — but, (most) importantly, they have to be trained not to act on it,” Grewal said. “And so that’s a commitment we’ve made publicly, that we’re going to start the state police with that training by the end of 2019. (Callahan) and I have already taken it together, along with all of the directors in my department and that’s important because we’re responsible for hiring, we’re responsible for promoting. And so we have to be free of those implicit biases as well and learn not to act on them, if we have them, and we all do. And that’s a big part of what we’re doing with training.”

“We must demand solutions and not tolerate problems, where victims are blamed before evidence of their innocence may be determined,” Witcher said. “When officers are set free and not tried, not even indicted, the tone sours and observers lose faith in the criminal justice system.”