The national news cycle the past few months has been dominated by allegations of police using excess force against unarmed civilians. The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, witnessed weeks of protesting this summer when Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed the unarmed teen Michael Brown; and then again when a grand jury declined to indict Mr. Wilson in Mr. Brown’s death.
Closer to home there have been protests in New York and in Highland Park’s neighbor New Brunswick after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer who was filmed putting the unarmed Eric Garner in a choke hold that reportedly contributed to Mr. Garner losing his life.
As the debate continues to rage nationally about how law enforcement interacts with the public, particularly African Americans and other racial minorities, Police Chief Stephen Rizco met with the Highland Park Planet to discuss how the Highland Park Police Department has tried to build and maintain a healthy relationship with the different racial groups in the borough, and what the Police Department does to build its minority representation.
HPP: One of the discussions to arise from the Ferguson protests is that there was no video to corroborate Darren Wilson’s claims about the situation he reportedly faced with Michael Brown, and that bodycams would have lessened the uncertainty over what happened. The Borough Council at a recent meeting discussed the feasibility of outfitting Highland Park police with bodycams, if they weren’t so cost-prohibitive. Do you believe body cams are something worth considering?
RIZCO: I think anything is worth looking at, providing it provides transparency.
The things that are captured are probably OPRA (Open Public Records Act) applicable, meaning that someone legally can ask for a copy of a particular video. You need provisions in place where people who don’t want their personal life to become public can be protected…. So it needs a lot of thought, and better minds than mine would have to be consulted as to how the bodycam data would be utilized.
I’m not against any type of cameras. We’ve had cameras in our police cars for a long, long time, so we capture what the camera sees, like car stops and stuff like that. Obviously this camera doesn’t go into the home with you.
Anything that documents something is always helpful. I have no aversion to investigating it, with the caveat that there has to be certain restrictions to protect the public and protects the officer. The officer has some downtime too, personal time during the day, going into restrooms, going to eat.
I think the bodycam certainly should be looked at….But there’s more to it than just saying ‘We’re going to have a camera record it.”
HPP: Have there been any incidents here in Highland Park that a bodycam would have made a difference?
Rizco: I’ve been chief since 2007, and thankfully, I have never received any allegation of misuse of force, excessive force, police brutality. We’re fortunate …and we certainly try.
Our model is community policing. We don’t want to be insulated. We don’t want to be a separate entity. We just want to blend in with the community.
I feel particularly connected to the community. I grew up a block away from this headquarters, and my mom still lives here in Highland Park, so I knew a lot of people. That’s what s nice, when are able to get police officers from Highland Park who know a lot of people already to begin with, because we’re a small community, many times that helps (with the relationship with the residents).
HPP: You mentioned the allegations of brutality. But what about less overt difficulties, like profiling?
Rizco: Occasionally I’ll get a complaint that someone received a ticket because of one reason or another. When we get a “demeanor complaint,” we’re obligated under the attorney general’s guidelines to perform a full internal affairs investigation.
If someone calls and says that they don’t like that they got a summons, we generally refer them to court because only the judge can entertain the (validity of) the complaint …. However when the Department gets a complaint about an attitude issue, a demeanor problem or a profiling issue… we will certainly look into that.
We are able to pull the video and look at the actual stop, see why the individual was stopped. Many times it turns out that the officer didn’t even know who was driving the car. We have an automatic plate reader, which many towns have….It will detect unregistered vehicles, unlicensed warrants for people, and it gives you a picture of the car, a description. That’s your probable cause to stop the vehicle.
Or (thanks to the cameras), the people who complain will sometimes see the officer is very professional – and that there were violations creating probable cause to be stopped.
When that happens we’re able to definitely take a look at it. When it’s a he-said-she-said situation, if we didn’t have cameras, it becomes a little more difficult without witnesses. It’s hard to substantiate….
Let’s face it, no one wants to get a ticket. That’s just the way it is. But we try to be fair, and the cameras generally help us in that case.
HPP: Let’s talk about interracial interaction and racial sensitivity. What sort of training does an officer go through to make the officer aware of racial bias?
Rizco: Training starts in the academy. That’s why they have such discipline, because the officers are supposed to be able to handle stressful situations in a professional manner.
I can’t speak for all the other departments, but when I became chief I started cultural sensitivity training programs. We have an Orthodox Jewish population that is very substantial; and they have certain customs and concerns that we want to make sure our police officers are attuned to. We brought in rabbis from our local synagogues. They gave (talks) on cultural sensitivity. The goal was to get our officers so they know what to expect…so they are not surprised by (certain behaviors and reactions rooted in cultural traditions). They are educated on how to better serve our people.
We have had an ongoing cultural sensitivity program. I brought in an imam; we brought in a gentleman from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office who happens to be an Asian Indian, to school us on the Asian Indian population’s culture. We brought in a friend of mine, Matt Horace, who was the head of the Alcohol Tobacco Firearms in New Jersey and he also was the head of the NJ Chapter of NOBLE, which is the National Order of Black Law Enforcement Officers. Matt Horace came with his staff, one being a retired Plainfield officer, and they provided cultural sensitivity for African Americans. We would like to bring in Hispanic representatives to give us a talk about the Hispanic community.
HPP: Suppose someone approaches the department with a report of being profiled or harassed. What happens then?
Rizco: That would certainly spark a full-blown internal affairs investigation. I would have Captain Golden, who’s the head of our Internal Affairs Investigation Bureau, speak to that individual. Then he would either lead the investigation or assign one of our officers who are trained in internal affairs, and he would go through that procedure.
If there’s anything criminal, it goes to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office automatically, and they take over any criminal investigation. Sometimes they’ll find no criminality and bounce it back to us. Case in point: In New York, the Eric Garner case. They didn’t indict the police officer, but he still potentially could lose his job. He’s now facing potential administrative charges.
So it’s twofold. Any time it’s criminal, it goes to the prosecutor’s office. If it’s not, it stays here, but any bias report that’s filled out whether it’s on an officer, or whether it’s on a resident, it goes to the prosecutor’s office.
HPP: During such an investigation, would the officer be put on leave?
Rizco: There are fairly strict guidelines on that. It’s a case-by-case basis. We can only suspend without pay for certain incidents. One is indictment and involves moral turpitude. If it’s a charge with a certain degree crime, they can be suspended without pay. If it’s not, they can be suspended but they have to receive pay. But it would depend upon an incident. An allegation doesn’t necessarily spark it.
If there is a reason to suspend an officer, pending something, they would be suspended with pay. But again, it has to be a case-by-case basis, based on the evidence. Just suspending someone with pay is statute-driven. You can’t just say “You’re suspended without pay,” because it doesn’t work that way.
HPP: Does statute set policy for suspending officers with pay as well?
Rizco: What happens in Internal Affairs is that an investigation is done. I get the final results with recommendations for any type of disciplinary action. The chief can agree with it, he can lower it, or he can raise it. I’ve seen it all different ways, but I’m the final arbiter of administrative discipline. Again, the criminal cases go to the prosecutor’s office, which takes over the case.
HPP: How many allegations of bias do you receive?
Rizco: Seldom. Here and there. Someone’s angry, generally it turns out they’re upset because they received a summons. On more than one occasion, we have actually invited the people in and said, “Listen why don’t you come in and view the videotape with us?” Sometimes the people have actually apologized and said, “Gee, I didn’t know I was doing that. I didn’t realize.” Because it’s spur of the moment, they’re upset. But that’s why I am not averse to cameras at all. Most times I think it saves lives.
HPP: When you say “seldom,” are we talking one a year, two a year, three a year?
Rizco: I couldn’t even give a number. It’s not very often.
HPP: Has it always been that way?
Rizco: I think Highland Park has been a pretty good community-oriented town. We know each other. I think so.
HPP: How would you describe the relationship the Police Department has with the black community?
Rizco: I think we have a good relationship. It can always improve. Any relationship can improve. and I certainly would take any suggestions. But I personally and professionally know as officers here we know so many people. We attend funerals, we know many of our residents of all ethnic backgrounds.
Generally speaking I would never tolerate any type of discrimination. We’re here to serve everyone. I think we do our best, and we do have a wide variety of people in Highland Park. We try to serve everyone as best we can.
HPP: The mostly white Ferguson Police Department did not match the demographics of the town, which was largely black. How does the Highland Park Police Department compare to Highland Park?
Rizco: Not as well as we’d like. It’s difficult sometimes to get qualified people of varied ethnicities that are interested (in policing). I believe I was told that we have an Asian population that is now around 15 percent. I don’t get many applicants of Asian background, even though we advertise.
Sometimes we reach out. We had one effort where we actually ran a test, and had a recruitment program in the town. I brought in the Chiefs of Police Association to run a written test. For whoever passed that, we had the Somerset County Police Academy run a physical agility test. After that, I knew no names, I knew no races, I knew no addresses. I took the top 15 people and interviewed them. We hired from there.
Unfortunately, in that group, there were (very few) from the town who interested in serving on the police force. That was our goal, but you can only do so much. It’s not always easy to do. They still have to have qualifications that fit the job, and they still have to have an interest. We encourage it, we reach out to organizations and advertise in publications (that we know will reach different ethnic groups).
Do we match the natural demographics of our town? No. But we certainly try and we hope to attract a variety of people in the future.