Montclair residents packed the Montclair Salvation Army church last night to attend Montclair Police Department’s July 18 forum to discuss law enforcement issues in light of the shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and attacks on the police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.   The meeting, which was supposed to last an hour and half, ran an hour over to accommodate the many concerns of Montclair residents.  Though nothing comparable to the events in towns like Ferguson, Missouri or Falcon Heights, Minnesota have occurred in Montclair, new Chief of Police Todd Conforti said he wanted to make himself available and transparent to foster good relationships with the community.   Joining him were several members of the police force, including Deputy Chiefs Tracy Frazzano and Wilhelm Young, as well as Essex County Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray.

Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti addresses a question at the police forum at the Salvation Army church while Essex County Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray listens.
Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti addresses a question at the police forum at the Salvation Army church while Essex County Acting Prosecutor Carolyn Murray listens.

Attorney Jim Johnson, who has collaborated with the Brennan Center for Social Justice, moderated the forum and underscored its importance by saying that the police wanted to hear people’s concerns, and he called on everyone to take a moment to breathe deeply and be silent before they began, which they did.

Many black residents in attendance were fearful for their children, and they asked what they should tell their children of driving age on how to react to a traffic stop.  Chief Conforti said that that simplest thing a motorist should do when stopped by a police officer is to comply with an officer’s requests and demands and not provoke a confrontation.  The safest course of action, he said, was to wait patiently and allow the officer to go through the standard procedure, which involves handing over one’s license, registration, and insurance card when asked and to wait patiently for the officer to explain the reason for the stop.  Sergeant Tyrone Williams said that the best way to deal with policemen who act unprofessionally was to “comply and complain later” – comply with the officer, then file a complaint with the police department or the county prosecutor’s office.

A black minister said that he feared that if he asks his child to comply with the law, he could still end up dead.  “And if my child does not comply, does that mean that my child has a right to be dead because he didn’t comply?” he asked.  “What are you talking about right now to try to avoid this from happening?”

Chief Conforti said the best answer he could give was that he would start a talk with the residents, continue the conversation, and try to move forward.  “I’ve been the police chief for a few months now, and I don’t have all the answers.  But I will say, I do take your concerns seriously.”  He said that his department was committed to investigating officers who have issues, and that the county prosecutor’s office is there to provide an alternative avenue.  The chief also cited continued training in dealing with residents and how to de-escalate potentially troublesome situations.  He admitted that trust between the police and community would not happen overnight, but he said he was committed to working on it every day.

Murray praised the Montclair Police Department for its robust standards, and she said compliance was always the best recourse.  She also said that her office takes racial bias seriously, and that such bias is becoming more implicit and subconscious, as racial attitudes have become more ingrained overtime, and that more vigilance was necessary to root out such biases.  Some residents noted the many killings of black civilians as evidence that many police forces have been murdering black people; resident Adesia Palmer complained that guilty police officers have not been going to jail.

Murray tried to provide some answers.  She said that if police officers fire their service revolvers in the course of their duties, it has to be looked into by the Internal Affairs office.  ”We have to investigate closely, because many of those cases involved the commission of a carjacking or the commission of a serious crime,” she said, but not some of these things that we’re seeing in other parts of the country, and we simply cannot arrest an office without a full investigation.”  Palmer asked how some cops could literally get away with murder despite video evidence; Murray believed that the use of video will enhance abilities to prosecute errant officers.

Resident Leslie K. Brown of the Police Committee and the Civil Rights Commission asked about monitoring police officers over their implicit bias, such as some Montclair officers who have posted anti-Black Lives matter material on social media. Chief Conforti said that social media incidents need to be reported to the police to allow them to handle it.

Feelings were raw among many residents, including a 35-year-old black man who said he felt fearful of the police and was worried he could end up dead if stopped. Resident Maatie Alcindor said that the police needed to do better in handling young black civilians, saying that her son was traumatized by being stopped by police while walking through his neighborhood after a shooting and searched without an explanation for the search.  “That left my family very shook up,” she said.  “My son was not happy with the message that was given to him.”  She went to the Civil Rights Commission and got a complaint form, but he was reluctant to fill it out for fear of retribution from the authorities.

An 81-year-old black woman thanked Officer Ben Campos for his courtesy and professionalism after he stopped her at Chestnut Street for going through a red light; she thought she had the right to do so because no traffic could have been coming the other way due to the other way being closed off because of to construction.  And resident Ben Ali gave Deputy Chief Young a black-belt medal to show his appreciation for keeping him “on the right path.”  But there was a sense of urgency among members of the council who attended.  Councilor-at-Large Robert Russo said that too many police officers and civilians were killing each other, and he decried the recent violence at public gatherings.  Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville said that guns had to be taken off the streets and called for more diversity in the force and in the input and feedback the police received.

Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville speaks out at the July 18 police forum. Moderator Jim Johnson is in the background.
Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville speaks out at the July 18 police forum. Moderator Jim Johnson is in the background.

There was general agreement in how to maintain and improve relationships between the police and the residents, such as continuing police involvement in neighborhood activities and community outreach programs such as “Coffee with a Cop,” where residents discuss their concerns with officers over coffee or some other beverage.   Mayor Robert Jackson, for his part, took pride in the Montclair Police Department.  “I do think that we have an unusual fervor . . . for trying to do things the right way, and we do make mistakes,” he said.  “Our police officers are not perfect, and none of us are perfect either.   But I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, and I feel this very strongly, that we have the finest police department in Essex County.”

24 replies on “Residents Raise Concerns About Race & Law Enforcement at Montclair Police Forum”

  1. I can think of a couple of things to be safe when pulled over by an officer. Comply. Plain and simple. Do what the officer asks of you, even if you feel the stop is not justified. They will give you the chance to explain. First, they must make sure you, the community and the officers are safe. Whether you are black, white or any other color, comply. Teach your kids young that the cops are not the bad guys because, really, they are not. Too many older people feed the minds of the young that the cops are out to get them. Not true! Call and ask to speak to an officer who can arrange for an officer to come to your community or neighborhood. Have them sit with the officers and speak to them on the childs level. They won’t be at the coffee with a cop, they will be playing ball in the street or sitting on their porch. MPD, try and arrange a ball game at Glenfield Park, Edgemont Park or any other park in town. Perhaps have a late afternoon in a park, meeting and greeting and speaking to the young kids. Bring something to them and ask them to give back. A lot of the officers today do not live in the township. Years ago, it was easier to get to know the officers who protected us, through one of their kids, walking the beat and by living in the neighborhood. That has changed so MPD needs to find a way to connect with the young adults. Stop teaching your kids that the cops are the bad guys! MPD, play act scenario’s that can happen while at a traffic stop. Where to put your hands, what happens when your passenger takes off running, what if your registration has expired? Sit on that park bench with our kids and just talk and let them talk. Again, teach your kids and maybe yourself, to comply. If you feel uncomfortable and would rather have a black officer or an officer who speaks Spanish, wait till the officer has done his job and lets you speak. Be respectful and you will get the same back and who knows, maybe you will make a friend. That little wave from a passing officer who stopped you last week WILL put a smile on your face.

  2. @montclairgirl Even though you think it’s as simple as complying when an officer pulls you over, it’s not. A man was shot this month for complying. The officer requested his identification and as he was reaching for it, the officer fired multiple shots into the man, who was in the freaking passenger’s seat. So telling people of color to “just comply” is invalid. Some police are bad guys. Once they start killing people for no reason or make judgements based on race they are BAD. But the way our government treats this issue makes it okay for people like you to stick up for them. One of the main problems is that police who work in urban communities don’t live there and have no knowledge of the people or the conditions those people are living in. They are not the best ones to be protecting those communities because they have no ties to it, they don’t care about them. But trying to oversimplify this national issue as a compliance issue is laughable and ignorant on your part.

  3. @montclairgirl—please, whitesplain some more for us! Cause that is as ignorant and ill informed and condescending as any post here in recent memory…

  4. Unapologetic: Don’t put words in my mouth. I never said just “people of color” should comply. Those are your words. All people of all age and race should comply.Let’s have some respect for the police and the job they have to do. Do you think officers put on a badge and start their day saying “I am going to shoot someone today”? Do you honestly think police are killing people for no reason or because of the color of their skin? You said “they are bad” can you please explain who “they” are? All police? some police? just white police? I don’t know where you live but Montclair is the most diverse town in NJ and the MPD has become the most diverse department in its history.
    I am still a little confused on your statement that our government allows me to stick up for “them”. Who is them? I was trying to have a conversation here and find some solution to all the violence. Don’t you want the same?
    I said specifically that years ago, officers lived in the community. Now, no one can afford to live in Montclair. Middle and lower income is being pushed out. Most (99%) of the officers across America have the knowledge and know the condition of the communities they serve and they serve them well.
    I was commenting on Race & Law Enforcement in Montclair. That is the topic of the heading, you just need to scroll up…but you seem to be taking this national. I can repeat the headlines, you can repeat the headlines but right now, let’s talk about Montclair. I was born and raised here and attended Montclair schools. It is quite unlikely being raised in Montclair to be called out as a racist or ignorant. Remember the word diversity? Montclair invented it! We worked hard for it. Our local government, schools, families,neighbors and police department. Were you involved? What hospital in Montclair were you born in? Did you grow up in Montclair? If not, you missed an amazing time in history. Now be careful and let’s not pull Montclair into what is happening nationally. Why divide when we can work together starting in our own community.
    As for you jcunningham, go away, you’re annoying.

  5. It is FAR too easy to become a police officer.

    The statement below is hilarious. I think we are being trolled.

    “Most (99%) of the officers across America have the knowledge and know the condition of the communities they serve”

  6. Hi JCunningham, Pleasant weather today. By the way, is that your colorful local patois on display? I’m white. Should I be whitesplaining something to you, or explaining? I can be down with it, whatever you suggest. I struggle with understanding communities outside of my own race, of course. Who doesn’t? I’m just trying to decipher if “whitesplaining” is your version of cutesy racism, cause Lord knows my “cutesy racism” can get me a whitey time-out.

  7. Montclairgirl, when you write, “All people of all age and race should comply,” that includes people of color, and unapologetic is exactly right. I understand the desire to believe that the police really all do mean well, but the fact is that some don’t, and while we pretend otherwise, people are suffering. The idea that the older generation is feeding hatred to young people is also misinformed, as the numerous videos and photos of people of color being shot and killed does the job quite clearly.

    I am grateful that the Montclair police are willing to engage in a dialog about race considering the current political climate, but the conversation will go nowhere unless we are honest. As a white person I do not need to fear for my life or for the lives of my sons at the hands of the police, but I cannot deny that the fears of people of color are justified just because their experience is not my own.

  8. A shi*ty and gratuitous comment, elcamino.
    Especially in these times, diversity always a potential solution.
    Seems you take a more exclusionary position.
    Build a wall between Montclair and Bloomfield. Keep the riff-raff out.

  9. In 2016 America:
    “Why did you shoot me?” (Unarmed Black Man, who is behavioral therapist, lying on ground with hands raised)
    “I don’t know” (Police Officer who shot him three times)
    “He actually meant to shoot the other man” (referring to unarmed autistic man therapist was assisting), and missed”- President of Dade County Florida Police Union…
    Both unarmed men were handcuffed to each other and made to wait on ground for twenty minutes until medical assistance was provided.
    In 2016 America…add Assisting While Black, to list.

  10. El Camino is quite right, but you’d need to possess an open mind of independent thought and intellectual humility to be able to appreciate his point.

  11. This from someone who previously posted that Bloomfield “has long fostered a culture of aggressive driving.”

    Zero credibility.

  12. Once again, you would have to be predisposed to rational, objective thought in order to see the truth in some things despite their potential for ‘triggering’ your emotional discomfort. That being said, it’s both typically and ironically ‘liberal’ of you to want to disqualify my observations simply because they do not jive with your rhetoric and/or perspective.

    It’s willful ignorance to deny the inevitable influence of one’s surroundings, culture, psychology and the degree of neurological toxicity present in an environment when it comes to driver behavior. There are discernible differences in driving interactions and habits between most towns and cities in this state and others. Our driving reflects our subculture, our life experience, our nurturing, etc.. We are influenced by our surroundings and the way other people behave.

  13. Although Dr Baskerville is reported to have asked for more diversity on the police force, it’s been my observation the MPD is pretty diverse already. And very competent, in my experience. What are the current stats, and how do they compare to the stats for the overall population of the town?

    MPD did a great job of turning back the drive by shootings in the Mission District and on Greenwood Avenue a few years ago. Nobody was roughed up, nobody was shot, and the neighborhoods seem to be enjoying an extended period of peace. Nobody seems to be giving MPD any credit for working with the community to produce a job well done.

  14. nonfat, for purposes here, I am not at all interested in your opinion as to what factors drive human behavior.

    Getting back to my original point, to the extent that you are able, tell us how the Bloomfield PD “has long FOSTERED a culture of aggressive driving.

  15. @ paolo: “… it’s been my observation the MPD is pretty diverse already … What are the current stats, and how do they compare to the stats for the overall population of the town?”

    The Township has 108 officers. 66% are white male; 6% are white female; 14% are African-American male; 3% are African-American female; 6% are Hispanic male; 2% are Hispanic female; and 3% are Asian male.

    Overall, 72% of the officers are white. 28% are minority.

    [The newly-sworn police chief is a white male. The two newly-sworn deputy chiefs are a white female and an African-American male].

    According to the 2010 census, the African-American population is approximately 27% (down from 32% in 2000). The Hispanic population is approximately 7%. The Asian population is approximately 3%. The white population is approximately 62%.

  16. Thanks for the stats, Devonklein. That’s progress, but there’s a ways to go. Dr Baskerville was right.

  17. “I don’t know where you live but Montclair is the most diverse town in NJ…”

    Really? Ever been next door to Clifton? I love Montclair. And I love it’s diversity. But come on.

  18. “That’s progress, but there’s a ways to go. Dr Baskerville was right.” Really? Department has 17 percent Black officers and Town is 27% black so we have to have force exactly at 27 percent Black to achieve full diversity? I didn’t think reasonable people still believed in such rigid quotas. Perhaps if we adjusted latter figure by share with minimal cop requirements–some college and no felony arrests–we might be at Full Diversity already. If Baskerville is right, it’s by coincidence b/c as I said earlier, her answer is always “more diversity” So you know, broken clock…

  19. @montclairgrrrl:

    “I struggle with understanding communities outside of my own race, of course. ”

    —THAT was more than evident in your pathetic little lecture to members of a community that you clearly do not understand. But your incessant desire to justify your pig ignorance does make it plain what you really are, so thanks for that…

  20. Friendly reminder for jcunningham (from comment guidelines):
    “Mind your manners. Don’t be nasty…”

  21. Just checking to see what the usual cranks have to say. Aside from the dope dealers and occasional miscreants from Orange or Newark, we have a nice and peaceful town. Our police do an exemplary job. Cunningham is a misanthrope that looks for problems where they don’t exist, and some of the perpetually angry grey hairs, who still feel the need to protest everything are always going to be around. Nothing to see here on the race front. We all get along.

  22. “Nothing to see here on the race front.”

    “It’s not About Race because nothing in America is ever About Race…There is a growing industry in explaining to America how nothing ever is About Race. People get wealthy doing it. People get famous doing it. There are entire news channels and publications dedicating a great deal of time and effort in proving the case that it’s never About Race. And, somewhere in the country, someone is crossing against the light, and the odds that this person will wind up dead on the street are not anywhere near equal. If that’s not About Race, then it’s about an ungovernable country.”
    —Charles Pierce

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