BLOOMFIELD, NJ — More than 100 people joined a Zoom call hosted by Bloomfield Councilwoman Wartyna Davis and Mayor Michael Venezia on June 10 to discuss police and race in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. With input from Bloomfield Public Safety Director Sam DeMaio, community members commented and asked questions about how the Bloomfield Police Department will respond to the demands for police reform.
“This moment in time is incredibly important,” Davis said at the meeting. “As a black woman I found it very heartening, the response. For decades I felt like I was shouting into the wind, and then the wind went down a little bit and people began to hear.”
Matt Arnold, a Bloomfield resident who organized the June 5 march and police brutality protest, worked with DeMaio, who spoke at the protest, and other members of the BPD to hold the event. He thanked DeMaio during the meeting, while also bringing attention to the changes that still need to be made.
“He participated in everything we did and I cannot thank him enough,” Arnold said about DeMaio. “At the same time, the Bloomfield community and the black community is still aware that saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t matter, all lives don’t matter. It means we need your help.”
He talked about Bloomfield’s 2019 budget, which spent $16,581,350 on police. The total municipal budget for 2019 was $86,171,572.65.
“Bloomfield as a town spent $16.5 million of the budget on police,” Arnold said. “That’s 20 percent of an $86 million budget. But we only spent 2 percent on human and health services and 1 percent on parks and recreation. Spending only 1 percent on parks and recreation is honestly absurd. These are things we need to start implementing so we can make a change.”
Bloomfield’s health department budget in 2019 was $1,426,000. The human services department budget was $374,600.
Arnold also brought up the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, police reform guidelines that were released by the nonprofit Campaign Zero. Bloomfield has seven of the eight policies already in place; the policy not in place in the BPD is one requiring officers to warn before shooting.
When addressing Arnold’s points, DeMaio said enacting a policy to enforce a warning before shooting could potentially be difficult, because, depending on the situation, there is not always time to issue a warning. As for the budget, he said that 90 percent of the BPD’s budget goes to salaries for the 125 officers, 15 dispatchers and 15 administrators.
Resident A.R. Khan said at the meeting that defunding the police, which is a method of police reform that reallocates police budgets to other community services, is necessary.
“Most of the country is on board with reallocating resources on community-based models of safety, including sending out social workers on calls,” Khan said. “So when 90 percent of the police department budget is spent on personnel, that’s alarming.”
DeMaio said diverting money for social workers from the police is a possibility.
“Are there things that are being handled by police officers that health professionals should handle?” DeMaio said. “That’s certainly a conversation that’s being had.”
In response to a question about qualified immunity, which protects civil service police officers from being sued over on-the-job incidents unless it can be proven they violated someone’s constitutional rights, both DeMaio and Venezia said they would support police departments no longer being part of civil service.
“One of the conversations myself, the director and our town attorney had on Monday was about leaving civil service,” Venezia said. “Civil service might have been good in the ’50s and ’60s when it was created, but it also hinders progress and it hinders and protects bad employees and bad officers.”
DeMaio said that in New Jersey, police officers would not be able to be fired for misconduct, but instead be suspended without pay.
“They would still be members of the police department until they went through the whole judicial process,” he said. “Once they’re found guilty of a crime, then I can hold a disciplinary hearing and fire them. That’s just New Jersey law based on civil service. I’m all for being able to terminate people much quicker. Because you wear a badge, you shouldn’t have any immunity. You shouldn’t have any special privilege. You should follow the law that you are paid to enforce.”