Essex County, Newark Authorities Address Use of Force Policy During Town Hall Meeting

Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens

NEWARK, NJ — After New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year announced the first revision to the statewide “Use of Force Policy” in two decades, Essex County authorities are now highlighting the new policy revisions with local police. 

The Essex County Prosecutor's Office, joined by local authorities including Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara, hosted a virtual Town Hall event on Tuesday to discuss Use of Force Policy in the immediate area. The virtual town hall came amid “a string of troubling incidents nationwide” officials said, but also invited the public an opportunity to learn more about when use of force is appropriate and how it should be used. 

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that over the past few years, no aspect of law enforcement has been spotlighted as much as use of force,” Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens said during the meeting. 

Ignited by the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Grewal announced last year that his office would soon conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the current Use of Force Policy, which had been left untouched for decades. 

Now, giving more guidance to law enforcement officers on specific circumstances to exercise use of force, Essex County authorities are hoping to stymie inconsistencies in how officers use the method to de-escalate potentially dangerous altercations. 

In April, use of force data became publicly available through a statewide dashboard that debuted as part of this initiative. The dashboard tracked use of force cases in the state from October 2020 through February 2021, including detailed incident reports of every closed case in which a state, county or municipal law enforcement officer allegedly used force against a civilian. 

A breakdown of the Newark Police Division's Transparency Data showed that the department reported 180 use of force cases between Oct. 1, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, some of the highest numbers in the state when compared to other municipalities. The data did indicate, however, that cases in Newark dropped from nearly 60 reported incidents in October to 30 by February. 

During that period, Newark police reported that 440 officers were involved in use of force cases. Meanwhile, the Essex County Sheriff's Office reported 15 cases from October through February.

“In Newark, we have been working towards these issues for years now,” O’Hara said during Tuesday’s Town Hall. “A consent decree happened in Newark which gave us the backing to enable us to go down this road - enable use of force reform and issues around implicit bias in law enforcement and enhancing training for police.”

Part of setting a new standard for law enforcement in the city came when Newark police and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 entered into a consent decree. The agreement served as a shift for the city’s authorities to improve their quality of policing through various facets of training and reforms. 

Since Newark police entered into the agreement, they have reported several improvements in their policing efforts. 

In a quarterly report, it highlighted that city police and its monitoring team have made “considerable efforts” to establish remote auditing capabilities while pandemic-related restrictions on in-person meetings remained in place. 

The federal monitor also highlighted a decision from the police earlier this year to issue body cameras for all plainclothes officers after Det. Rod Simpkins shot and killed a man minutes into New Year’s Day - an incident investigators said was difficult to assess due to a lack of footage from the scene.

“While it sounds like it’s different subjects, it’s kind of the same thread that connects them all and helps address all of these issues,” O’Hara said. “At the end of the day, it’s helped us sort of change the culture of the Newark Police Department.” 

Although the public safety director is determined to carry this momentum forward, he said that regulated use of force policy will still be necessary to handle certain incidents.

“Everything we are doing here is about maintaining the sanctity of every human life,” he said. “The bottom line is that police will need use of force at times, but we have to make sure that our officers understand that we only want to do so when it’s absolutely necessary.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-05-12 03:42:31 -0700