What’s the right approach to policing in Montclair?
By ANDREW GARDA
Montclair’s leaders will soon make their usual decisions about the township’s police budget — how much to spend on staffing, equipment and training.
But some in town would like to see Montclair rethink its entire approach to policing. Montclair Beyond Policing’s Lily Cui wants to see “a Montclair in which all our needs are met, and everyone — children in our schools, Black and brown people living their lives, people experiencing a mental-health or substance-use crisis, unhoused people — receives care instead of policing,” she said.
MBP was formed in May of 2020 after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Its goals largely align with national calls to “defund the police” — though the precise meaning of the term often depends on the speaker.
Cui’s organization would shift police out of Montclair schools, and have traffic management handled without them. It would like to see a 911-like emergency line that sends unarmed mental-health workers and medics trained in crisis intervention rushing to help — instead of police.
Those are far from universal asks, even among activists who broadly share MBP’s goal of expanding social services and making policing fairer. And many of Montclair’s police and civilian leaders argue the township already enjoys a good relationship among law enforcement, social support services and the community.
Abe Dickerson founded Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing. He and Alexandria Kerr of the For the Peoples Foundation put together this summer’s Black Lives Matter — Crack the Blue Wall rally, which drew about 1,000 people to the streets of Montclair, to call for accountability and racial justice in policing. Montclair Police Chief Todd M. Conforti joined marchers in taking a knee at the event.
Dickerson wants transparency in the budget process — potentially as an avenue to shift resources to social services. Montclair’s municipal departments are scheduled to come before the Township Council April 6 to present their needs and plans.
In 2020, Montclair’s Police Department was allotted $16 million, mostly for salaries, accounting for 17.5% of the budget. The township’s Health and Human Services Department, in comparison, was allotted $1.8 million.
But Dickerson worries about scaling back policing too much.
“In a psychological situation, when someone shows up unarmed and perhaps getting hurt or maybe getting other folks hurt, I know [this] response probably isn’t a popular one, but I’m on the side of these officers,” he said.
He cited the example of a domestic violence call. Dickerson said officers have the training to assess danger, and the ability to call on information about the history of those involved in a disturbance.
Still, from Dickerson’s point of view, changes in training and tactics, as well as further partnerships with outside agencies, could be productive. So might reallocating funds.
Under MBP’s approach, money would be directed to school counselors and expanded restorative justice efforts. Funds for police would be shifted to long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness, and to harm-reduction programs like needle exchanges, safe injection sites and free mental-health clinics. There would be a greater investment in recreation and the arts.
Some of those needs are addressed, at least in part, by local, county or nonprofit services. New Jersey only has seven needle exchange programs, the closest in Newark. The state does not currently have authorized safe injection sites.
“We do not want yet another round of reforms, such as de-escalation or anti-bias training, diversity in hiring, body cameras or community outreach programs,” Cui said.
She said those sorts of reforms often come about in moments of public outrage, but “no matter how well-meaning individual officers or supervisors are, no matter how much public funding is poured into reforms, the police cannot solve our biggest problems because they are not meant to.”
Conforti argues his department already partners with outside agencies on a host of issues, including for mental-health calls or addiction issues.
The Community Service Unit, under the supervision of Lt. Tyrone Williams, is exploring a partnership with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Counties to provide better services for those experiencing homelessness, he said. Police help get people in need into shelters, “especially during the winter months, to get people safely off the streets,” Conforti said.
Sgt. Charles Cunningham manages the MPD Vice Control Unit, which partners with organizations such as the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team of the Essex County Prevention Coalition, the Essex County Health and Wellness Recovery Center, Hope One and REACH for Recovery.
Conforti said his department trains officers in responding to mental-health calls and other delicate matters, for when they need to respond without the immediate support of other agencies.
“The officers, who are trained to appropriately respond to people in crisis and to de-escalate the situation, are usually the first to arrive on scene,” he wrote to Montclair Local.
Councilman David Cummings — representing Montclair’s Fourth Ward — described strong ties between Montclair’s police and the community.
“Tyrone Williams has been in Montclair for 25 years as the lieutenant who was in charge of community policing,” he said. “Ricky Cook also grew up in Montclair and went to Montclair High School, played football and is a member of the community policing department.”
He said that makes Montclair stronger than people give it credit for.
Cummings participated in several of then-President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keepers 21st Century Policing” calls. Many of the suggestions he heard for rethinking policing, he said, reflected practices already in place in Montclair.