TC discusses disarming volunteer auxiliary police

The Maplewood Township Committee discusses disarming the volunteer auxiliary unit of the Maplewood Police Department at its July 21 meeting.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Township Committee voted to further the discussion in 90 days about whether or not the town’s auxiliary police should be disarmed, in addition to preventing the use of the unit in the event of an emergency. Maplewood Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul had already deactivated the volunteer police during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent further infection, but they had been responding to emergencies. The motion passed at the July 21 meeting with a vote of 3-2. Committeewoman Nancy Adams and Committeeman Greg Lembrich cast the opposing votes.

Many residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting about the topic, including members of the volunteer police unit. Laila Gold, a student at Columbia High School and a member of the MAPSO Youth Coalition, was one of the speakers.

“The impacts of violence on police are nothing in comparison to the 400-plus years of racism and hate crimes against black Americans,” Gold said at the meeting. “Though threats of violence are never OK, focusing on police lives before black lives takes away from and discredits the national impact of police brutality and systemic racism on black and indigenous people of color. The auxiliary force should not have the power to threaten the lives of civilians. Arming them only upholds their position above the law and gives them the power of intimidation. If their jobs are to help with crowd control and safety, why should they make people feel unsafe to the extent of violence?”

Heather Craven, another resident who spoke during public comment, said community volunteers should not have weapons.

“Clearly, we don’t want weapons involved at any of our community events,” she said. “We don’t want weapons around our high schoolers. There should be no need for a weapon for directing traffic.”

Sarah Rothman said that, because the use of weapons is so infrequent by auxiliary police officers, it doesn’t make sense to arm them in the first place.

“I’ve heard many descriptions of their duties, and I have yet to hear a strong rationale for arming them,” Rothman said during the meeting. “They have not used their firearms in recent memory, which indicated the purpose of carrying a gun is only one of intimidation.”

Ed Meade, who has served on the auxiliary police unit in Maplewood since 2008, said the role of the volunteers is to protect the community while supporting the MPD. He also talked about the training hours volunteers go through to be a part of the unit.

“I log 250 to 300 training hours per year as an auxiliary officer, and I’ve received hundreds of hours of class training and qualifying for firearms safety,” Meade said. “Some people have argued that we’re just volunteers and we do this because we get to drive a police car or carry a firearm. That is an incorrect assumption.”

Meade described several calls he has been on as an auxiliary police officer, but also echoed Rothman’s point about the infrequent use of the unit’s weapons. In the last 12 years, there has not been one incident involving a firearm.

DeVaul said at the meeting that the things the town is asking the auxiliary officers to do would require them to have the same equipment as the MPD officers.

“We’re asking them to ride along with our officers, we’re asking them to participate in events where we would require our own officers — our paid officers — to have firearms,” he said. “We wouldn’t put them in a position where they could be in harm’s way.”

DeVaul said that while some events, like Easter egg hunts and food drives, do not require auxiliary officers to have a gun, others, like all crowd control and some traffic control, do.

“We would not be able to disarm them and ask them to do the same thing,” he said.

Disarming the unit is not something DeVaul believes needs to be rushed into.

Lembrich does not want to disarm them, saying during the meeting that, “The solution is in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“Our auxiliary officers have been armed for decades without incident,” he said. “There have been no internal affairs complaints against auxiliary officers, and certainly no incidents where auxiliary officers are reported to have misused force or their weapons.”

Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis and Committeeman Vic DeLuca both talked about the duties that both MPD and auxiliary officers are asked to perform that they shouldn’t be, such as social services. Arming the volunteer unit could fall under that category of asking them to do things they shouldn’t be asked to do.

The Township Committee will revisit the topic in October, when the 90-day period is up.