Abbott addresses policing policies at council meeting

Members of the West Orange Police Department speak about the June 6 Black Lives Matter protest and the changes Chief James Abbott is planning on making in the department at the council meeting on June 9.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange Police Department were at the West Orange Township Council’s virtual meeting on June 9 to discuss police reform and the plans the department has to address police brutality, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the Black Lives Matter protests that have broken out across the country as a result. At a protest in West Orange on June 6, a petition was presented to the council asking for ordinances to ban police choke holds, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds, and an independent review board to be created to oversee the police. While many of those policies already exist within the WOPD, police Chief James Abbott said at the meeting that Mayor Robert Parisi is working with the West Orange Youth Caucus, which organized the June 6 protest, to draft ordinances for the council to consider.

“I said at the demonstration on Saturday that there’s too much silence,” Abbott said at the meeting. “The silence is deafening among police executives. Police leadership has a moral and ethical obligation to speak out and motivate their fellow leaders to perform at Campaign Zero.”

Campaign Zero is a nonprofit organization that released “8 Can’t Wait,” guidelines to reduce police brutality in departments across the country. The WOPD already had all eight policies in place, but Abbott said there is still more work to be done.

“What I intend to do is reinvigorate our Citizens Police Academy,” he said. “I want to bring that back and really recruit in communities of color. I don’t need the people out there who already think we do a good job. I want the people who are going to challenge us, who are maybe not so convinced we do a good job. Despite performing at Campaign Zero, they may have their own instances of police misconduct in West Orange or somewhere else, and I want them to challenge us.”

According to Abbott, the WOPD is going to create its own website, one that will be separate from the township website. With its own site and social media accounts, he said, it will be easier for residents to find the information they seek.

“We have always published our use-of-force reports, our demographics and a lot of information,” he said. “Admittedly, it’s difficult to navigate. You have to first go to the department’s page and click ‘Police’; you go from there to ‘Professional Standards,’ you go from there to ‘Internal Affairs,’ and that’s where you’ll find the wealth of information that most people are looking for, especially recently. We’re going to establish our own social media accounts so that if somebody clicks on ‘Police’ while they’re on the township website, it will take them right to our pages, so it’s not so hard to find.”

Council President Michelle Casalino mentioned ordinances that have been outdated for years and asked whether they would be repealed and whether new, more relevant ordinances would be created. Abbott talked about a loitering ordinance that the caucus would like to have changed, as they said it encourages racial profiling.

“The loitering ordinance, for some reason, never got repealed when it was stricken down as a void for vagueness by the United States Supreme Court,” he said. “Every loitering statute in the land got stricken down. So we don’t use it. It shouldn’t be there; it should have been repealed 30 years ago.”

Addressing the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds, Councilman Joe Krakoviak asked if the WOPD has a specific policy against them.

“That is called less lethal force,” Abbott said. “It’s permissive according to the attorney general guidelines. However, we do not have it, and we do not intend to purchase it. The reason I was eager to sign that petition was to say, ‘This is all good by us. You’re right, these are the things that we’re going to do.’ There may be certain police departments that need tear gas for certain circumstances — I’m not going to paint with such a broad brush that everybody should ban use. That’s up to the attorney general at this point. But we don’t have it in our armory. We’ve never had it, at least as long as I’ve been chief, and I don’t recall ever having it in my 40-year career for use by officers.”

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown asked if having ordinances would hold the department policies in check and prevent a future administration or police chief from changing disciplinary actions. Assistant Township Attorney Ken Kayser said that the prosecutor’s office oversees local police departments, and ordinances might not change the way operations work in the WOPD. A larger conversation would have to be had about that in the future, according to Kayser.

“I agree that this is something that we need, but we also need effective change, not just symbolic change,” Matute-Brown said. “I think we do have to continue that discussion.”

Krakoviak also asked about the creation of an independent police review board, and Abbott said there is a provision in the attorney general’s guidelines that went into effect on April 1 that allows police oversight.

“It’s not what most civilians would think of in terms of a civilian review board,” he said. “They don’t have the authority to overrule the police chief as far as discipline and they don’t impose discipline. They do have the ability to look at other things. I think if done properly, it could be a constructive tool to gain confidence of the citizens of West Orange. Performing at Campaign Zero and yet having countless people email me or speak at the rally demanding that we do shows that there’s a need for greater communication and greater transparency, especially with the young people. I have so much respect for the way they came out and did the things they did and said the things they said.”