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LONG BRANCH – Relationships between police and some communities are strained and frayed in parts of America. But Monmouth County hasn’t had many problems but wants to do even better.
That was the hope and the belief expressed by representatives of area chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and from representatives from five area police departments who met last weekend to explore their relationships in what has been a tense time for some communities across the country.
Gathered in the television studio of the Long Branch High School, 404 Indiana Ave., last Saturday morning were Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno; Lorenzo Dangler, president of the Greater Long Branch chapter of the NAACP; the chiefs or other high ranking officers from the Red Bank, Fair Haven, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Tinton Falls departments; and 11 community representatives selected by the NAACP to ask questions of the police.
Dangler had said previously, the intention of this get-together – and planned future ones – was to encourage dialogue between these communities, most of which have a diverse population, and the departments that are charged with their protection and the tension that can result from misunderstandings.
Dangler referenced the ongoing turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri stemming from the police shooting last summer of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man; the death last year of unarmed Eric Gardner in Staten Island, New York; and the subsequent shooting death of two police officers as they sat in their patrol vehicle.
He went on to tell officers that most recognize the difficult job they have. “We’re not here to point a finger,” he said. “We’re here to bridge the gap.”
Guadagno, who lives in neighboring Monmouth Beach, acknowledged, however, “There is a sense of distrust on both sides.”
As someone with a background in law enforcement (Guadagno had been a federal prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff before elected as the state’s first lieutenant governor), said she was certainly aware of the dangers and challenges faced by police patrolling the street, walking up to vehicles during a traffic stop and she was aware of communities that feel alienated from the power structure.
While it is a serious situation, Guadagno insisted, “It can be solved. And I think it can be solved by the people in this room,” she added.
As an example, she pointed to Camden, where the county took over the law enforcement responsibility. “They changed the whole way and how to police,” she said.
The first question asked was about the vision for the various police departments.
“I think the big part of it is building relationships in the community,” said Red Bank Police Chief Darren McConnell. The problem in Ferguson, McConnell suspected is “They didn’t have a good starting point,” in working with the community.
“If you have that trust and relationship it makes our job easier,” he said.
Asbury Park Acting Police Chief Anthony Salerno, a 27-year veteran with the now 90-officer department, conceded the force in the past hadn’t been an example of how to be open with the various city neighborhoods. “We built up this lack of trust,” and “it’s going to take time” to change that culture, he said.
But it is changing, Salerno insisted. Contributing to greater transparency is the department’s acceptance of social media platforms like Facebook and increased accessibility.
Salerno and the other police officials said they have been accessible to organizations, regularly attending meetings, keeping the lines of communication open. “It’s been great to open myself up to the community that way,” Salerno said.
When he started with the department, Salerno said street patrol was punitive for officers. But it was where he and other officers had a greater interaction with residents and officers learned the makeup of neighborhoods. “I learned that good people lived in bad neighborhoods,” he said.
McConnell added that the Red Bank department has recently begun requiring officers to get out of patrol vehicles for at least a half-hour during a 12-hour shift.
According to Long Branch Safety Director Jason Roebuck, his 90-officer police department will be reinstituting bicycle patrols; Long Branch and Red Bank have both begun having officers walk through local schools, to get to know educators and students and have them meet police in a non-confrontational environment.
Police officials fielded questions covering such potentially hot-button issues, which they opposed, believing there is already sufficient oversight on the local, county and state levels. One of the other issues is use of force, especially deadly force, with all noting departments follow the state attorney general guidelines and training requirements, with a number of the departments exceeding those requirements, with officers undergoing additional weapons training.
Asbury Park officers have had to use their guns twice against suspects in the last 17 years, though not fatally, Salerno said. Tinton Falls Police Captain Gerald Turning Jr., told of coming close to having to use his weapon in a tense situation. “I was getting beat up pretty good,” in a scuffle with a suspect, Turning remembered. “And I felt the trigger finger squeeze start to happen.”
It didn’t come to that but Turning insisted, “The use of force is something we don’t take lightly.”
As for the use of body cameras, officials acknowledged cameras are coming but there are areas of their use that have to be worked out before hand, which the state attorney general is the process of doing.
The event was recorded and videos will be made available for the communities represented to show at meetings or on public access television, Dangler said.
The Rev, Henry Davis, president of the Red Bank NAACP chapter saw the day’s forum as a success. “This is what it’s all about,” he said. “We’re on the right track.”
Kady Ceasar, a 17-year-old Long Branch High School student, who asked about developing trust, said, “I think we covered a lot. And I took a lot away from it.”
“It was a good start and it’s part of a process,” that will involve future meetings, Dangler said.
The next one will likely be in the next few months, he said.
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