Town releases files from July 5 altercation

UPDATE: At its Aug. 1 meeting, the Maplewood Township Committee unanimously passed a vote of no confidence, requesting the resignation of Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino. Effective immediately from that meeting, Cimino was placed on administrative leave, with pay, for 60 days.

During the vote, the room was packed, with many more concerned residents standing outside in the hallway. Prior to the meeting, approximately 100 people rallied outside Town Hall to protest the actions of the Maplewood Police Department on July 5, 2016.

In addition to Cimino, Capt. Joshua Cummis was also placed on administrative leave, with pay, until Aug. 31. As such, acting Capt. Jimmy DeVaul is the new acting chief and Lt. Albert Sally is the new acting captain.

These developments occurred prior to press time for the Aug. 3 issue of the News-Record. Below is the story that ran in that issue:

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Things are heating up in Maplewood regarding the July 5, 2016, incident during which — according to police — Maplewood police officers broke up a disorderly crowd of teens and — according to concerned residents — the police racially targeted a large group of teenagers.

At approximately 10 p.m. on July 5, 2016, Maplewood police arrested four teenagers — three from South Orange and one from Maplewood — after receiving a report of a large fight following dispersal from the Fourth of July fireworks show, held a day later due to rain. According to police, the officers saw a large group of disorderly teens, whom they attempted to disperse; however, the teens allegedly resisted, refusing to leave the area.

With assistance from the South Orange and Irvington police departments, Maplewood police monitored the situation and arrested four teenage boys, charging them with several counts, including disorderly conduct, obstruction, resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer. According to police, the large group of teenagers — reportedly mostly black — was ultimately disbanded near the Irvington border; no officers were injured and no property was reported damaged as a result of the alleged fights.

On March 30, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Officer concluded that there was “insufficient credible evidence to warrant a prosecution” of Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummis, who had been accused of racial profiling.

Nevertheless, the township has hired an independent investigator to look into the alleged incident.

“The Township Committee has deep concerns and wants to know more about the events of July 5, 2016,” a June 30 statement from the Maplewood Township Committee read. “It has hired the firm Hillard Heintze to complete an independent assessment of July 5 and to make recommendations regarding police policies, procedures and practices. The work of Hillard Heintze should be finished by the end of September. At this time the Township Committee cannot say or take any action that could prejudice the work of Hillard Heintze.”

Hillard Heintze was retained at a rate of $29,000, though that fee could go up to $34,850, as needed.

The Township Committee had previously expressed its “deep concerns about the events of July 5, 2016,” in a resolution it passed unanimously in December.

“Maplewood is committed to the equal, respectful and dignified treatment of all people and has long embraced and welcomed individuals of diverse racial, ethnic and national backgrounds,” the June 30 statement read.

In addition to the independent investigation, the Maplewood Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit is also investigating. Due to the ongoing investigation, the township had until last week declined to release police audio and video tapes from that night. However, the Township Committee voted 5-0 on July 18 to release this information. On July 25, the township released the police reports and audio files from that night; on July 28, the township released a 10-hour long video file, in which the faces of minors had been blurred out.

According to the recently released Maplewood police reports and audio files, there are several reports of the involved teens, in several unruly crowds, assaulting officers who were attempting to restore order, as well as reports of police using pepper spray on the teenagers and, in some instances, punching teenagers who resisted arrest.

Pepper spray was used in an incident on Valley Road in which, according to one officer’s report, “approximately 150 to 200 of what mostly appeared to be teenagers or young people began running north on Valley.”

According to the officer, the group was engaged in a “physical altercation.” The report states that police attempted to gain control of the situation first with verbal commands, but were unable to do so.

“As officers were attempting to separate two females who were engaged in a physical altercation pulling each other’s hair and swinging with closed fists, a group of 10 to 15 people began to rush at officers,” he wrote. “This officer began yelling multiple orders for the group to back up, but they did not comply.

“This officer, feeling my safety and the safety of other officers were in danger when the group came within 10 feet of officers, deployed OC spray (pepper spray) in a horizontal sweeping motion on the group that was failing to obey my commands,” he continued.

According to the report, this ended the disruption. A separate report indicated that two females who had been pepper sprayed later sought medical attention.

Other reports detailed attacks on police officers that caused them to use physical force to subdue alleged perpetrators. In one report, an officer wrote that he had been “forced to place (the perpetrator) in a compliance hold” due to the teenager allegedly pulling away and resisting arrest.

Another police report, detailing an incident that occurred on Elmwood Avenue and Orchard Street near midnight, describes a large and disorderly crowd that “became extremely irate and refused to comply with any orders to get out of the roadway. During that time one female in particular was enticing the crowd not to comply with officers’ orders.” According to police, while attempting to arrest this female, another female attempted to stop the arresting officer by grabbing him and physically pulling him away.

Police reports also indicate that, after one teenager “attempted to overtake an officer,” a second officer “struck (the teenager) approximately three times in the abdomen/side of his body with a closed fist,” which allowed the officer to arrest him. This individual allegedly remained “disorderly and combative” at headquarters, according to police records. In the same location, another officer used a “closed fist” on an allegedly unruly teen to subdue him.

On July 6, at approximately 2 a.m., police arrested another male teenager after he allegedly jumped on an officer’s back in an attempt to prevent the officer from arresting a second teen who had spat at him; according to police reports, both teens were arrested.

The audio files also seem to indicate that Maplewood police were attempting to corral the teenagers and push them toward the Irvington border. While it is clear in some audio files that police were dealing with unruly crowds, in others it certainly sounded as if the alleged incidents had begun to die down and that calm was being restored. The audio files were all relatively short, providing fragmentary snapshots of the events.

“What we learned from the audio clips is that upon the command of Chief Cimino, black children were pushed toward the Irvington border with the plan of sealing them out of their own town,” Black Parents Workshop founder Walter Fields wrote in a recent statement.

While Fields and fellow members of the Black Parents Workshop are angry about the initial incident, in which questions were raised regarding racial profiling and undue violence, community members are also angry with the how the township and police department has handled the incident since it occurred.

“In addition to stalling on the release of the audio and video recordings, we learned that (the) Maplewood police chief violated policy by showing the videotapes to select individuals in the community who did not file formal OPRA requests,” Fields said. “In addition, while the township asserted that the video could not be distributed until the faces of youth were blurred in the interest of their privacy, Chief Cimino showed no such concern and showed the video with the identity of minors exposed.

“It is the arrogance by which the police operate and Chief Cimino leads that leaves us disgusted and in no mood for the ‘community conversations’ and ‘dialogues’ that the two towns have used to pacify the black community for years,” Fields continued. “The time has come for the hypocrisy of how these towns treat black youth in the community and schools to be exposed and addressed, and for reforms that will respect the basic human rights of black youth.”

Fields is calling for Cimino to be removed from his position and for the public to reach out to the Township Committee to show a united front.

And Fields is not the only one calling for Cimino’s dismissal. The Black Parents Workshop created a petition on that calls for Cimino’s dismissal; in just three days, as of press time, the petition already had 213 signatures.

Though the internal MPD investigation continues, the department has reprimanded six of its officers for their actions that night, according to a July 28 statement from the department’s Internal Affairs Unit.

“To date, one officer received 17 suspension days with an additional three suspension days in abeyance for violating department rules and regulations and for violating department procedure regarding the use of force,” the July 28 statement from the Internal Affairs Unit read. “Another five officers have also received formal discipline for violating department rules and regulations.”

According to the statement, all officers have subsequently received additional training “to help prevent a recurrence of the violations that were determined to have occurred.”

But community groups, such as the Black Parents Workshop and the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, are asking for much more to be done.

“The Maplewood operational order released by the department on July 22, 2017, regarding the fair and impartial treatment of all people, regardless of their immigration status, is a step in the right direction in creating a welcoming community,” the CCR said in a July 31 statement. “As evidenced by the actions of the police in the July 5, 2016, video, however, we see an urgent need for reform and training by an independent, outside party in the area of crowd control tactics, racial profiling and interactions with persons of color. Further, we call for those directly or indirectly responsible for this unfortunate incident to be held accountable to ensure the troubling behavior at issue is prevented in the future.”

The CCR also criticized the delay in releasing the video file to the public, saying it has “eroded trust in the police.” The CCR requested that, in the future, the Township Committee work to disperse information in a more timely manner. Furthermore, the CCR wants the Township Committee to step up and work to solve these problems once and for all.

“The community has expressed concerns about the Maplewood Police Department’s objectionable interaction with persons of color over the years with little noticeable change,” the CCR statement read. “Our elected officials have a duty to demand that our police force be a full participant in this town’s goal to be racially inclusive. That means a police force that is itself diverse; undergoes rigorous, continuous anti-bias training; and reviews its practices and incidents on a regular basis — scrutinizing for possible biased behavior so it can be eliminated.

“We look to the town’s elected officials to demand the highest standards of ethical behavior and police professionalism,” the statement continued. “We urge the Township Committee and the police department to take immediate and transparent action to address these concerns: to work with us to listen to the constructive feedback offered by residents and community groups; to thoughtfully consider ways to repair the damage done; and to fully commit to becoming a model of fair and unbiased policing.”

The CCR, along with other community partners, such as Rev. Terry Richardson of First Baptist Church of South Orange, SOMA Action, SOMA Justice and Michael Minor, are organizing a community forum to discuss this matter. The forum is intended to be a safe place to express feelings and to strategize future action. The forum will take place Monday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Maplewood Middle School Auditorium. For more information, contact the CCR at 973-761-6116 or