Hopewell Township Committee hears from the public on racism in the police force

Hopewell Township Municipal Building (photo: M. Galioto)

In light of the recent suspension of several Hopewell Township police officers and employees (click here for story) the regular Hopewell Township Committee meeting last week focused almost exclusively on that issue. The HT Police Chief presented race-specific traffic stop data and the Department’s use of force policy and extensive time was given for public comment. The Committee later discussed salary increases for non-Union employees and approved the retirement of long-time employee David Stokes.

“The members of the Hopewell Township Police Department condemn racism and understand it has no place in our society,” began Police Chief Lance Maloney. “As we continue to investigate a recent Facebook post, please know I am sorry for the hurt this incident has caused our community. We understand we have an obligation to make sure officers police in a manner that is fair and impartial.”

With regard to use of force, Maloney said, “Our Department is very well aware of the issues regarding the use of force occurring nationally and we continue to review our policies and training curriculum to make sure our officers are well-trained and compliant. Use of force is not taken lightly and should only be used when de-escalation techniques have been exhausted or would be impractical for a given situation.” 

Maloney presented traffic stop and use of force data compiled for six years, between 2014-2019. He also asserted that the Township follows safeguards from the “8 Can’t Wait” initiative. One such safeguard is a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds, which the HTPD bans unless “deadly force is authorized or necessary.” 8 Can’t Wait calls for a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds in every situation, according to the 8 Can’t Wait website.

The HTPD’s use of force policy can be viewed at this link. Data and updated reports also are available online including monthly traffic stop data.

Over six years, a total of 57 use of force incidents have been reported. Each year, HTPD receives approximately “25,000 calls for service between Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough,” said Maloney, totalling 150,000 for the six years presented.

The data reveals that force was used in 52% of instances on White males (non-Hispanic), 22% White females (non-Hispanic), 17% Black males (non-Hispanic), 5% were Black females (non-Hispanic), 2% White females (Hispanic), and 2% White males (Hispanic).

The most frequently implemented use of force was a “compliance hold,” which involves restraining an individual by their arms and/or wrists, explained HTPD Sergeant James Rosso. He said: “It’s like a wrist lock where you’re using the least amount of force on the subject to gain compliance… it produces the lowest level of injury to a subject.” 

Committee member Michael Ruger asked how the data for use of force compares to other neighboring municipalities, saying that it seems like a very low number but wants to benchmark it against other areas. Maloney said that a portal will be available in July statewide that will provide better data.

The traffic stop data shows that out of 58,000 total stops between 2014-2019, 83% of drivers are White (race) of which 86% are non-Hispanic (ethnicity).

Committee member Julie Blake asked, given that only 5% of Hopewell Township is Black, whether the HTPD has information about if those stopped in traffic were from the Township or if “they are passing through with a bench warrant.” Maloney responded that he would look into the information.

During public comment, Township resident Sheila Fields asked about statistics regarding when and why police follow certain cars through town. Township resident Anita Williams agreed: “As a Black member of the community, I have been followed more than a handful of times for no apparent reason,” she stated, and also shared a story about her son also experiencing similar circumstances but with a traffic stop as well.

Maloney also explained some upcoming improvements to policing including a crisis intervention program that is coming to Mercer County, “which helps officers recognize people in distress or special needs and trains them in techniques to assist them, hopefully negating the need for use of force scenario.” Maloney said the Department will “attempt to have as many officers at the training as possible.” He said the HTPD currently has ten officers certified in this program. He added that New Jersey will be moving to a licensing model for police officers, rather than certification. He said that a license can be revoked if an officer is found guilty of misconduct.

In addition, the Hopewell Township Committee will host Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri on an overview of use of force and police reforms on Tuesday, June 30, at 5:30pm. For more information, click here.

Blake proposed a panel to review the data, “I think it is important to know what is happening here and to make sure the people here feel safe. We hear a general concern,” she told the audience. “ We hear you loud and clear and feel it similarly.”

“The numbers are a story but they’re not the whole story,” said Ruger, “We can use this as a basis for ongoing discussions.”

In response to a question by Committee member Courtney Peters-Manning, who asked for a mechanism to anonymously report potential racial profiling, Maloney explained that there are instructions on the HTPD website that include a method of anonymous reporting. Once a report has been issued, the internal affairs supervisor reviews the issue, he said.

Some issues the public would like more data on include: complaints against officers and use of force and traffic stop stats broken down by officer; and data about escalation, for example how many citations are issued. 

“This is a journey and we’re in the early stages,” said Mayor Kristin McLaughlin. “We need to find the right answer for Hopewell Township… I appreciate the questions; the conversation is going to continue and that’s what we want and what we need and what everyone who lives here deserves.”

Audience member Scott Brown asked, since use of force statistics are apparently so low, why the HTPD requested tasers during the budget process this year. Rosso replied that tasers had been requested so officers have a choice of a less-lethal form of force in a situation when deadly force might be called for. However, Blake indicated that the Township Committee had “universally rejected” the request from the Department. She said the Township had reviewed statistics that show tasers are used disproportionately on people of color. 

Blake said: “It is important that, in today’s climate, you are all here to ask very hard questions. We as a Committee ask these questions every year and we talk about it and we think about it and we care about it. We make decisions about race and inclusion, and diversity in everything we do because it impacts our community. 

Several members of the public asked about the lack of Committee members attendance at a recent rally organized by community members calling for police accountability. Earlier in the meeting, Committee members and HTPD were counseled by Township attorney Steve Goodel, to not make any statements regarding a legal case filed by Sergeant Michael Sherman. Members of the Committee also had previously addressed the issue here indicating that they had been advised by legal counsel not to attend the rally organized by family members of the police officer* because of the litigation with the Township. 

Many members of the public expressed shock at the level of police presence at the rally supporting Sherman. Police were described by resident Marissa Bunting as “surrounding the perimeter” of the event.

“It was a peaceful protest and beautiful event… For a police officer to use a threatening posture in front of my child because we were supporting a basic human rights issue it was really out of line …. I cannot even imagine what our residents of color are dealing with on a regular basis,” said Stephanie Overton Hall, who urged the Township to do better than “attempting” to reform officers.

Corey Abernathy, who is the son of local coffee shop owners and who is Black, said “I have a concern with how the Police Department has presented themselves with the situation with Officer Sherman… How can I feel comfortable with how my community is run, if they show they don’t respect the Black and Brown community,” urging the Committee to return Sherman to active duty and for the removal of Chief Maloney. 

“The fact that there has to be a powerpoint to use statistics that are biased and based predominantly white officers… making the point that we need to rebuild the department,” said Abernathy.

“Anytime there is a demonstration of social relevance, put a mechanism in place so you hear the voices expressed, said Allen Cannon. “I understand that all people are different… and everyone has different experiences… but the experience of being a Black person in America is more unique than any other racial group on the planet.”

Paul Pierson, Sherman’s brother-in-law and the rally’s organizer, spoke about the importance of “building relationships with the good actors in the community” and denounced the police’s presence at the rally, “Your decision to show up in the show of force demonstrated that the Department leaders agreed with these comments,” [he said about the recent suspension of several Hopewell Township police officers]. Pierson also presented the Committee with a petition, specifically asking for an explanation for why Sherman has not been returned to duty.

Township resident Catherine Fulmer-Hogan spoke about her experience as a Black woman raising her family in Hopewell Township, saying that her life and her family were changed by the HTPD. “I had to come home and have a conversation with my family. I had to insist that my husband put Hopewell football and lacrosse magnets on his truck so he would be safe driving in our community — because he would be one of ‘ours.’ These are the things you think about when you’re a person of color. You all need to understand the impact for people of color in this community,” said Fulmer.

“I want people to understand that we will hear them… I’d also like to acknowledge the rally… There was someone who live-streamed the rally and I watched it,” said Blake. “Please know that we do care and want to hear people’s experiences and there are many ways to hear them. It isn’t just at one rally, and we have to continually hear it.”

“What we are working on as a community is what do the mechanisms look like, how do we make sure the voices who need to be heard are involved, and how to take the information and move the community forward,” said McLaughlin. “All of those are ongoing conversations and it’s good to her the voices with such deep emotion because it is time you have an opportunity to be heard. It’s important to the community to hear that.”

The Committee approved the retirement of David Stokes, who was employed by Township Public Works for 35 years. Stokes started his career as a laborer, was promoted to Truck Driver, Light Equipment Operator, Heavy Equipment Operator, and most recently was employed as Foreman. He received warm well wishes and farewells from Committee members and Township Administrator Elaine Borges. McLaughlin applauded his efforts and recognized his wonderful reputation. 

“Dave is many things — a mentor, dedicated employee, practical joker, storyteller but most of all he supports others … Dave is responsible for many successes in the Department, most recently the leaf and brush procedure and the Timberlane walkway… On behalf of everyone in Hopewell Township I wish you a happy and healthy retirement,” said Public Works director, George Snyder.

“All the employees helped me get through the 35 years. Everyone is great there. George is a great director. I’m going to miss everybody,” said Stokes. “I’m going to stop around to say hello and try to make everybody laugh!”

The Township Committee approved a “Comprehensive Salary and Wage Plan,” which gives salary increases to non-union employees’ through a cost of living adjustment, explained Township Administrator Eleanor Borges. She said that union employees receive cost of living adjustments through their contracts. 

During public comment regarding this resolution, Jon Edwards urged the Committee and the public to understand that this increases the Township Committee’s salary by approximately $86. “These are distressed times and it is important for you to consider standing on principal and consider striking out your own increases.”

Committee member Blake shared the importance of not precluding people from doing this job. “This is a hard job and I want everyone who can serve to serve… So yes absolutely, I’m voting for this.

“For us to not adopt this would harm future Committees,” said Ruger who pledges to give his share of the increase to a local nonprofit as he does with a percentage of his salary each year.

The resolution passed with all voting yes, except Peters-Manning.

The Committee also reviewed and approved several resolutions, one supporting a new art project called “Hope in Hopewell,” which will be a public art project.

The next regular meeting of the Hopewell Township Committee is scheduled for Monday July 6; however, a special meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 30 to host Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri as mentioned above.

Edit 6/29/2020: The original article was published indicated that Sergeant Sherman is a “former” officer. Please note that he continues to be under the service of the HTPD and the article has been corrected.

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