South Orange to reimagine policing in Essex County pilot program

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange has announced the launch of “Community Care & Justice.” Initiated by Village President Sheena Collum, Community Care & Justice is a collaboration between the South Orange community, Seton Hall University and Essex County.

The program, announced in a special town hall meeting on March 7 that sought input from residents, seeks to reimagine traditional models of law enforcement by putting a greater emphasis on wellness and crisis prevention while embedding care and compassion service values into all facets of police operational strategies and enhancing training for de-escalation and implicit bias.

Community Care & Justice is led by Trustee Donna Coallier, chairperson of the village’s Health and Public Safety Committee, and Juan Rios, director of Seton Hall University’s Master of Social Work program.

“Each year, we have more than 350 service calls to the South Orange Police Department that include domestic violence, mental health crises, substance abuse, homelessness and welfare checks,” Coallier said. “And let’s not minimize ‘suspicious person’ calls that disproportionately impact people of color who are our residents or guests. Tackling all these issues requires a community-centric approach and data to measure outcomes and progress.”

An important program goal for the CC&J initiative includes making best practices scalable to other communities, police departments and health professionals. 

“We need to think big,” said Rios, a licensed clinical social worker whose body of work encompasses subject matter expertise in policing, mental health, restorative practices and racial/social justice. “Taking our lessons learned and implementation models here in South Orange and scaling them to other communities can be a game-changer.”

The county will be the third member in the partnership. 

“This is a step in the right direction and has endless possibilities to serve all communities in our county,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said, pledging his support for the initiative. “I always say that our strength is our diversity, which includes being respectful of one another and understanding each other’s differences. Our Racism, Bias and Discrimination Committee, which participated in early discussions on framework, is eager to ignite this partnership.”

South Orange is a diverse community of 17,000 — more than 35 percent of its residents are people of color — that abuts county neighbors Maplewood, Newark, East Orange, Orange and West Orange, and houses within its borders Seton Hall University, which itself is home to more than 10,000 students, with a diversity rate of 46 percent. 

According to Coallier, CC&J is focused on establishing the groundwork to move forward as a model of care and compassion-based wellness, designed to rally the community around its values and engage public servants, activists, youth, faith-based leaders, first responders and other stakeholders in collaborating to identify and drive opportunities to improve local health and public safety outcomes.

“We’re glad to have the help,” South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll said. “After the murder of George Floyd, I committed to our community that we in the police department would be listening and working every day to do better and involve those we serve in helping us become stronger — both as a police department and a community. We’ve started our way along that path with the Community Police Collaborative, which is focused on police-community outreach, law enforcement data and analytics, and training programs. We will liaise closely with both the CPC and the CC&J team as we look for opportunities to improve our service to the community. Together, we can do better, and the mandate is clear — we must.”

CPC Chairperson Bobby Brown amplified Kroll’s call for collaboration. 

“We’re delighted to see the CC&J program coming to fruition,” he said. “We see it as playing an important role in improving municipal services here in South Orange, and so have tapped CPC members Brendan Gioello and Dr. Sara Wakefield to be liaisons to the program.”

To view a recording of the March 7 town hall meeting, visit https://www.southorange.org/806/Community-Care-and-Justice.

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