More than a dozen residents spoke out Tuesday night in favor of police reforms that would, they said, help to alleviate alleged systemic racial prejudices and biases within the Highland Park Police Department, particularly in light of a recent statewide use-of-force report that has exposed serious flaws in reporting and police accountability.
The report, published by the Star-Ledger earlier this month, tracks racial disparities—in some cases extreme disparities—where police are required to use force, often a regular and necessary part of policing. But like many towns in New Jersey, Highland Park’s use-of-force numbers indicate significant racial disparities.
Most notably, the report indicates that, based on population, a black person in Highland Park is more than 10 times more likely to have force used on them than a white person. It also reports that based on arrests, a black person in Highland Park is 51 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person.
The report comes after a year of escalating public pressure to address racial disparities in traffic stop and use of force data. In March 2018, that pressure spiked when a Highland Park teen, Amiri Tulloch, was spotted by police taking photos near his Northside home amid an ongoing investigation into a spate of home burglaries in and around Highland Park.
Mr. Tulloch, who is black, was at the time unaware police had noticed him but law enforcement officers quickly surrounded his home and spoke with his mother, Monique Coleman, a member of the Highland Park Board of Education. An internal investigations report found no wrongdoing by the responding officers but residents were nevertheless unsettled by a scenario that, they say, could have gone very differently.
“My son was considered to be a suspect not because he was taking a picture but because he was black,” Ms. Coleman said at the December 18, 2018 Council meeting. She was one of more than a dozen residents to speak on the issue.
Ms. Coleman expressed concern about the Borough’s internal affairs process and called for a formal channel for submitting grievances.
“What are you going to do to make sure policies and procedures are going to be fair and just?” she asked. She noted that her son’s incident could have resulted in Mr. Tulloch being injured, or worse.
Resident Ira Mintz echoed that concern: “We’re sending the wrong message to our neighbors that they’re being treated differently than others. That’s our problem and we need to fix it.”
Highland Park Police Chief Stephen Rizco said the numerical inequities were “disturbing” and said he was open to additional training and open communication. “We are concerned and we take it very seriously. There are flaws in the reporting,” he said.
Chief Rizco’s comments came after New Jersey Attorney General Gerbir Grewal called for an overhaul in the statewide data collection system. His statement emphasized the lack of uniform data collection methods and he noted that the records obtained by the Star-Ledger “may be inaccurate in some cases and may cause those relying on the data to draw incorrect conclusions about the state of law enforcement in New Jersey.”
The incident involving Mr. Tulloch set off a public backlash that resulted in Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler convening a “Committee of Understanding” between law enforcement, various boards and commissions, and members of the public. That effort has since resulted in the creation of a “Bias-Free Commission” whose tasks include aggregating bias complaints against municipal employees, including police officers, and provide quarterly reports to the Mayor and Council.
The Council has also engaged De Lacy Davis, a retired East Orange police sergeant who now serves as a consultant to address complicit and explicit bias within police departments. Dr. Davis is expected to deliver his report within the first quarter of 2019, according to Mayor Brill Mittler.
Several residents expressed concern about the name of the commission and requested that the ordinance establishing the commission make specific references to local law enforcement.
Between 2012 and 2016, Highland Park Police had used force 89 times, a rate higher than 332 out of a total 550 law enforcement agencies statewide. Specifically, the department conducted 83 compliance holds – 93.3 percent of its use of force incidents. That rate is higher than the state average of 80.9 percent. Police also used their hands or fists 47.2 percent of the time, nearly 20 percentage points higher than the state average. In most cases, the cause of police using force was due to resisting of arrest.
Police had not used batons or fired their weapons in the time surveyed.
Residents were eager for a plan of action following the incident with Mr. Tulloch. Resident Ellen Whitt said independent oversight would address many of the concerns raised.
“We need an independent process where people can raise a complaint without fear of retaliation. Issues of racial profiling need to be brought out into the open,” she said.
Watch the December 18, 2018 Council meeting here.