BOE member in hot water after altercation with police

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad is facing backlash after an altercation became public in which she argued with a South Orange police officer after being pulled over for speeding April 27. According to video footage of the incident, which the News-Record obtained along with a police report after filing an Open Public Records Act request, Lawson-Muhammad complained about being issued a ticket by South Orange Police Officer Shaun Horst and called South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll a “skinhead cop.”

According to police dashcam footage of the incident, when pulled over, Lawson-Muhammad said, “My name is Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, I’m on the school board, I’m a community member of this town and I am sorry if I was speeding, I didn’t realize I was speeding.”

Also on the footage, Lawson-Muhammad is heard asking Horst if he is from the Maplewood Police Department or the South Orange Police Department, and when he replied “South Orange,” she said, “Great, I’ll call Sheena right now,” referring to South Orange Village President Sheena Collum. She did not call Collum at any point during the stop.

Lawson-Muhammad’s child was in the car with her at the time of the incident, and was allowed to exit the vehicle and walk to school.

Lawson-Muhammad was issued a speeding ticket for driving 37 mph in a 25 mph zone on Walton Avenue in South Orange, in addition to a summons for driving without a valid insurance card, which comes with a mandatory court appearance. When initially asked to provide her driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance to Horst, Lawson-Muhammad could not find her license and could only provide an expired insurance card. She later found her driver’s license and can be seen in the video dangling it out her window for Horst, who was in his own vehicle behind hers, to see.

When issued the tickets, she began arguing with Horst, saying, “For me to have to go to court, for me to have to go to court, now you want me to go to court? I don’t want to go to court, I have insurance.” Lawson-Muhammad said she could prove she had insurance, but Horst said the tickets could not be voided once they were written. At this point, Lawson-Muhammad again said she would call Collum and that she would call Horst’s “skinhead cop chief.”

“This officer again stated OK, in disbelief of how the driver referred to Chief Kroll,” Horst wrote in his incident report.

Also on the dashcam footage, Lawson-Muhammad is heard telling Horst that she is afraid of police officers.

“I’m scared of cops, because you might hurt black people,” she said.

During the course of the traffic stop, Lawson-Muhammad sounded panicked and tearful, prompting Horst to inquire if she needed an ambulance or any other assistance. She replied “no,” saying he had insulted her by asking the question. In his incident report, Horst wrote that Lawson-Muhammad “began shaking, appearing to have panic or anxiety attack.” He also wrote that, after he offered to call an ambulance, she “immediately stopped crying and shaking and became aggressive with this officer.”

Lawson-Muhammad released a statement May 17, apologizing for her behavior and thanking Horst for his patience. When reached by phone May 18, she declined to comment.

“First and foremost, I want to sincerely apologize for my uncharacteristic behavior displayed in the police video on April 27th. I had an irrational response to being stopped for a traffic violation. I allowed my emotions to overwhelm me that morning, and I fell short of the standards to which I hold myself,” Lawson-Muhammad’s statement said. “Like many parents, I was trying to get my children to their schools on time. When the police officer stopped me, I was upset, frustrated, and uncharacteristically out of sorts. And to my benefit, the officer did not react to my behavior. The officer kept an even tone in our interaction and performed his job well under the circumstances. I thank him for his patience.”

Lawson-Muhammad also said she had met with and apologized to Kroll personally.

“I have personally apologized to Chief Kyle Kroll who, like me, is passionate about our community. He is not the person I made him out to be. He sincerely accepted my apology and agrees that we will work together to help heal our community. We have begun plans to work with community stakeholders to build stronger bonds and greater trust for the entire community.”

Kroll declined to comment when reached by phone May 18.

BOE President Elizabeth Baker responded to the incident in a statement on May 17, as well.

“I want to thank Chief Kroll for his willingness to meet with Ms. Lawson-Muhammad and accept her apology. This meeting reflects the beginning of a difficult, restorative dialogue. Such a dialogue takes personal courage and a shared commitment to our community,” Baker said. “Since I was made aware by the South Orange Village Administrator of the traffic stop incident involving my fellow Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, I have acted in consultation with the school district’s counsel to ensure adherence to all legal and ethical obligations. I also encouraged Ms. Lawson-Muhammad to personally apologize to Chief Kroll and engage in a dialogue that would repair the harms that her statements caused. I ask the members of our towns to support Chief Kroll and Ms. Lawson-Muhammad in this process.”

Collum also issued a statement on May 17, applauding Horst and Kroll for their professionalism. In her statement, Collum also addressed the part of the video in which Lawson-Muhammad said she would call the village president.

“The question has been raised about whether or not the school board member had used her status as an elected official or references to contacting me as a means to seek privilege,” Collum said in her statement. “A call to me never occurred and I assure you that I have not nor will I use my position of influence to alter the outcome of any police operation.”

Collum also asked members of both the South Orange and Maplewood communities to find ways to move forward from the incident together. In her statement, she said that the two towns “have a choice of whether to incite division or seek out opportunities to better understand each other and grow stronger. As we set examples for our youth, I hope it is the latter. Our standards must remain high, and accountability can take various forms, whether it be punitive or restorative — the question is which better serves our purposes.

“The South Orange community, along with our sister town of Maplewood, is known for having hard but much needed conversations about race, intentional integration, implicit bias, community policing, social justice, privilege — and the list continues,” Collum continued. “These conversations are not easy — and sometimes uncomfortable — but are absolutely necessary. The village has not been without fault, and while this unfortunate incident has made its way into the court of public opinion, both public and private meetings occur regularly with members of our community who have the courage to share their experiences and work with us to improve public safety operations. These agendas and concerns are often guided by a desire to bring about constructive change for the betterment of all our residents and guests. For that, I am grateful.”

In a statement representing the South Orange-Maplewood Black Parents Workshop from Chairman Walter Fields, the organization called on Lawson-Muhammad to resign her BOE position.

“The very essence of what the African-American community nationwide has been demanding in police officers was embodied by the conduct of the South Orange Police officer on April 27, 2018,” Fields said in the May 17 statement. “The officer in question is the type of officer one would hope to encounter if stopped. In a time when we have witnessed acts of violence and the shooting of unarmed African-Americans by police, we lose all credibility when we condone their abuse by someone from our own community.

“If Board Member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad refuses to resign, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education will set a new standard for student conduct and a new permissiveness for student misbehavior,” Fields continued. “If a Board of Education member, a public official who is a steward for the children of our school district, can use profanity against a public employee, use a racially derogatory word to describe a public official, and then attempt to use her standing to evade a legal summons and court appearance — the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education has surrendered all moral authority. You will no longer have the right to dictate rules to our children.”

Fields also questioned why the incident didn’t come to light until three weeks after it had happened and why it took so long for Lawson-Muhammad to issue an apology and the BOE to respond.

“Why did it take three weeks for an apology? Had the video not come to light, we have no doubt that this incident would have been concealed, swept under the rug and the public would have never known. We make no apologies for bringing this matter to light and challenge our two towns to not just ‘talk the talk’ but to ‘walk the walk,’” he said. “What example are we setting for our children when adults in leadership roles are given a pass? On the videotape Ms. Lawson-Muhammad is heard telling the police officer, ‘I am a leading member of the community.’ If that is the case, then show leadership. Resign.”

Lawson-Muhammad’s second, three-year term on the BOE expires at the end of 2019. She has not indicated whether she will resign.