Maplewood hosts ‘Awareness to Action’ discussion

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee and the Township Committee hosted an online forum with three sets of panelists on June 19, addressing law enforcement accountability, mass incarceration and the treatment of black people in the Maplewood community. The Zoom meeting, titled “Awareness to Action,” featured members of the Maplewood Community Board on Police, current and former South Orange–Maplewood School District students, and members of Maplewood’s youth restorative justice program. McGehee and the panelists discussed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and how the conversation about police defunding can affect local departments.

Erin Scherzer, the chairperson of the Community Board on Police, said one of New Jersey’s problems is that there are many small municipalities and police forces.

“We all love our little fiefdoms, right?” she said at the meeting. “We love that we can go before our school board, go before our town council and control our little universe. The challenge is that, when we have all of these small municipalities, we lack a central organizational structure and central oversight of all of the municipalities within our state, and as it relates to policing the policing within our state.”

Scherzer said a solution to the problem — despite what she called positive directives that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has put in place — is a statewide oversight system that audits police departments.

“New Jersey, two years ago, passed an incredible policy called the Early Warning System,” Scherzer said. “It gives departments a rubric to spot problem officers. The hope is to prevent those tragedies by catching something early. This is a great system to have, except, when you read the text of it, it focuses on the hyperlocal level with very little oversight above it to make sure it’s being consistent. We need to let go of this fiefdom, realize that we are all in this together, and we need more independent state-level oversight.”

Christina Swarns, a Maplewood resident, attorney and the CEO of the nonprofit The Innocence Project, suggested solutions to help end police brutality. One is banning and criminalizing the use of choke holds, and another is ending qualified immunity.

“If a police officer does something unlawful and someone gets killed, they should face the consequences of that,” Swarns said.

Panelist Paul Williams, a member of the Community Board on Police, said at the meeting that in 2018 there were 240 calls to the Maplewood Police Department. Of those calls, 73 percent involved people of color.

“When these calls come in, police have to go review it,” Williams said. “Out of 170-some calls, these were black and brown people riding their bikes, walking down the street, walking their dogs, sitting in front of a house that they own, and in this town there was enough bias for someone, thinking that they were doing the right thing, to call the police. Even the police officers are saying this is a waste of resources for them, and it perpetuates this idea of a confrontational relationship between law enforcement and black citizens in the city.”

Swarns said those calls are not police calls and must end.

“That’s a waste of police officer time and resources to send them there,” she said. “Those kinds of noncriminal phone calls should not be handled by the police.”

Brenda Wheeler Ehlers, the associate pastor at Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church; Christina Taber-Kewene; and Ayo Akinnuoye spoke about restorative justice, which allows youth who commit a crime to avoid the criminal justice system by coming to a solution with the victim and a panel of community members. About 12 people have participated in restorative justice in Maplewood since the program’s inception.

Sany Ephinn, a student at Maplewood Middle School, and Sri Taylor, a Rutgers University student who graduated from Columbia High School in 2018, talked about their experiences in Maplewood during the last part of the panel, both saying that students of color are often “tracked” into lower-level classes, preventing them from taking AP and honors courses.

T.J. Whitaker, a CHS English teacher, said police have been called to the school too often to solve problems.

“The school district is calling the police too often, and they’re calling them to resolve issues that should be resolved in the school,” Whitaker said. “Our central office and our board need to take some positions in terms of where they stand on police in the schools.”

McGehee pointed out that unions often protect bad police officers, preventing them from being fired when there is misconduct. Carolyn Mason, another panelist at the meeting and the president of Essex County’s chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., agreed.

“At the end of the day, their responsibility is to the community. Their responsibility isn’t to that select group of people,” Mason said, adding that some police unions are calling for change. “Statistically, you can see that the number of cases of unionized members with police brutality is significantly higher than it is for nonunionized police officers. There’s a disparate impact on men and women of color in the community.”