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Accountability First

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

As we begin the second half of 2020, it’s hard to believe what we’ve been through to get here. As if a global pandemic and the corresponding economic meltdown weren’t enough, we’re also dealing with long overdue questions of policing and racism. All people of decency recoiled at the video showing the last desperate minutes of George Floyd’s life. It would take a particularly craven person to excuse or justify what was done to him in the name of “policing.”

Similarly, no person of decency can excuse or condone the destruction and looting that has become all too common alongside peaceful protests in dozens of cities around the country; I certainly don’t condone such behavior even as I wrestle with what MLK said—that a riot is the language of the unheard.

But if it is right and fair to insist that we not condemn and dismiss the vast majority of protesters because a small contingent of criminal knuckleheads break into stores and steal whatever they can haul through the wreckage, then it’s also right and fair not to condemn the vast majority of police officers as racist because a small percentage of knucklehead cops vent their bigotry behind a badge and the authority of the state.

What happened to George Floyd on May 25 sparked outrage among people of goodwill everywhere. In response, President Obama challenged mayors, council members and police to do the following—review police use of force policies; engage the community by including a diverse range of input, experiences, and stories in the review process; report the findings of the review to the community for feedback, and revise police use of force policies accordingly.

But it starts with accountability. Police departments in New Jersey are governed by a set of use-of-force guidelines from the State Attorney General’s Office, and all officers are trained in accordance with these guidelines twice a year. What I didn’t know until I spoke with Bridgeton Police Chief Mike Gaimari, is that police departments can be more—but not less—restrictive than the AG’s guidelines, and Bridgeton is more restrictive.

It wasn’t always this way, but in 2015 there was a top-to-bottom review of Bridgeton’s practices against the AG’s guidelines and this same process was completed again this year within the context of the Attorney General’s “Excellence in Policing” program, which had Chief Gaimari serving with his counterparts from around the state on the committee responsible for revisions. Not for nothing, but the Bridgeton PD was among six departments in the state chosen to help ramp up new reporting systems that will be required statewide beginning next month.

It’s fair to ask what this means on the ground where citizens and police officers encounter each other. The bottom line is that every instance where force is used is scrutinized, regardless of how minor a given incidence may be. That scrutiny starts with a series of questions—what type of force, what level of force, was force justified, was the level of force employed justified, were alternatives to force available, are there training issues to be addressed, and are there disciplinary issues.

This review is made possible by body cameras and cameras in police vehicles. In addition to vetting use-of-force, reviewers also consider whether de-escalation techniques were properly used. Part of the revision process includes an early warning system, which Bridgeton did ahead of state requirements, in order to spot problem areas or officers to prevent larger problems from occurring. Drilling down deeper, reviewers don’t just limit their reviews to “use-of-force” incidents, they review camera footage of routine interactions that have nothing to do with force to try and spot any potential problems or people at the earliest point possible.

Accountability is baked into the cake at every turn, but it cuts both ways. It is one thing to say that demographically the police force should be representative of the community it serves and I think it should, but it’s another thing to find those willing to take and pass the civil service exam and attend the academy. It’s easy to march, protest, and chant slogans for change and hope somebody else does the work—it’s a lot harder to actually become that change. n

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