Police use of lethal force on African-American men have made national headlines. Their deaths have been live-streamed across smartphones while graphic images run riot on our televisions. But what are people thinking locally? Are people of color concerned about their safety? Do white people believe there is a problem? Are they talking to their neighbors of color about it? How are local police responding to the national outcry? What kind of force is being used?
A look at one local police department
New Jersey mandates completion of a “Use of Force” report when anything above an officer’s mere presence is applied to a situation. Sgt. Mike Cseremsak is responsible for training new officers of the Hopewell Township Police Department, as well as their yearly update training. He says that according to “Attorney General guidelines, our written directives, and in my training, you use the lowest level of force possible to accomplish your mission.”
Force is defined by the following, as it increases incrementally: the officer places handcuffs on the person; physical force applied if the person resists application of handcuffs; the officer punches, kicks and/or uses compliance holds; officer uses oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray or baton; canine (Hopewell Township does not use); tasers (Hopewell Township does not use); and deadly force.
Hopewell Township police must decide whether force is necessary during the hundreds of arrests made yearly, as well as during its many calls that involve people who need to go to Capital Health Regional Medical Center’s Crisis Unit.
Since the start of 2016, six Use of Force reports, involving 14 officers, were completed by the Township. The six reports show that 11 compliance holds were applied, an officer’s hands and fists were employed in four instances, and in one situation, a person’s hands were restrained. In 2015, nine reports were completed detailing 14 compliance holds, seven hands and fists, and one usage of OC spray.
A goal of the department is to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Besides having official Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) members on the force, all officers receive basic crisis intervention training on de-escalation techniques. They are equipped with spotting the signs of mental health and substance abuse issues, dementia, and developmental disabilities, to name a few.
“The most effective strategy is talking with people”, says Sgt. Cseremsak.
“We’ve had the CIT for about 8 years,” says Hopewell Township Police Department Chief Lance Maloney, “and it’s opened up a lot of eyes of how to deal with people. An animated person might have been misjudged as an aggressive person 20 years ago. Now, our officers are very in tune with knowing if something else is going on.”
At some point in a black child’s life, they typically hear “The Talk.” It is where mom, dad, or both explain that police may suspect them—of anything— because of their skin color and that the most important thing is to come home safe, not establishing who is right in the moment. The conversation varies between households.
Robert Henderson is an African-American husband, Verizon employee, Pennington resident, and father of two sons. When his oldest was learning to drive, Henderson and another family invited two black officers, one from Princeton and one from Trenton, to give advice to their sons and and their sons’ friends.
The Princeton officer told the kids to follow all instructions, keep movements to a minimum, and allow car searches if asked. The Trenton officer told the kids that they don’t have to allow their cars to be searched and that they can ask for a warrant. In the end, Henderson told his sons that “not everything is a race issue but sometimes, if you feel it is, you can call 911, if you don’t feel safe.”
Pennington resident Renata Barnes is an African-American wife, mother, MercerMe columnist, and community organizer. She has spoken several times to her 13-year-old son about how he must talk to a police officer (i.e. “yes sir”, “yes officer”, “no ma’am”). There are rules that he has to follow such as “no hoodies at night” and “no hood up on the hoodie”. She’s taught him that “people of color have to move differently in the public space” and to take that responsibility seriously. Barnes has watched stereotypes quickly form based on the actions of an individual African-American and does not want her son to be the cause of it.
“I’m telling him that he doesn’t want to look threatening to the dominant (white) culture because they will be reminded of all the minority culture stereotypes. They will thrust it on him and suspect him. They will think he is uneducated and not good enough.”
As a nation, there are theories of why police use greater force on black men and boys, but little in the way of answers. Police put their lives at risk, as we saw in Dallas, and do so with the best of intentions so why don’t people of color feel safe in their hands?
The answer to whether the next Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, or St. Paul could happen where you live is, “Maybe,” but steps can surely be taken to decrease its likelihood.
Hopewell Township is providing training this August on racial profiling and racial bias and, by the end of this year, they hope to purchase body cameras for all patrol officers. They are also in the process of writing a new recruitment Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that will hopefully encourage applicants representative of the community’s growing diversity.
Barnes coordinated three Hopewell Valley Race and Diversity dinners, hosted by local Pennington churches, with the goal of creating safe spaces where people who are white can talk with people of color about such things as white privilege, police force, and institutional racism. Barnes says that people ask questions and talk openly, without fear of unintentionally offending someone.
“For society to be equal and just for all of us, we have to initiate that change, individually and collectively. We must do that deliberate work if we expect to see that reflected in the way our police, police,” said Barnes.
For more information about the Race and Diversity gatherings, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.