Montclair officer suspended after allegation of using a racial slur, chief confirms
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
A Montclair police officer has been suspended after allegedly using a racial slur while in Atlantic City, Police Chief Todd Conforti confirmed Wednesday.
Conforti, in a brief email to Montclair Local, didn't name the officer or say whether the officer had been attending an event in his capacity with the department at the time of the incident. He also didn't say if the officer was suspended with or without pay, or for how long. Montclair Local has sent a message back seeking further information.
The police chief said an investigation "was immediately launched" when he became aware of the allegation. Interim Township Attorney Paul Burr declined comment other than to say the matter was under investigation.
Mayor Sean Spiller, in a message sent to Montclair Local Thursday, said racism has no place in the township.
"We hold all who represent Montclair to the highest standard. It is our policy that any allegation of racist or discriminatory behavior will be swiftly and thoroughly investigated and where appropriate, action taken to ensure accountability," he said.
The mayor said personnel matters can't be discussed publicly, but "that does not mean they are not taken seriously and addressed directly."
Montclair's Civil Rights Commission had been told of the allegation and "we remain interested” in the investigation into the matter, Chair Christa Rapoport said.
The Montclair Police Department last year suspended one of its officers, Bill Coad, for 20 days after he made a Facebook comment about a “China 19 check” — an apparent racial reference to coronavirus. Police had acknowledged to residents who filed a complaint that Coad had been disciplined, but the details of that discipline were first made public in February, in a compilation of police disciplinary records released by the state Attorney General’s Office.
That report, which is pulled from data released to the Attorney General's Office by local departments, has been criticized by transparency advocates for often including little information about the incidents that prompt discipline. In Coad's case, it says only that he "made inappropriate comments via social media which also touched on his position as a [Montclair Police Department] officer."
The AG’s report also shows a Montclair State University Police Department officer, Amanda Rusticus, was suspended for 30 days, with the suspension held in abeyance, “for violation of the MSUPD off-duty code of conduct policy.”
The Montclair African American Clergy Association had planned a press conference for Thursday, to discuss what its members describe as a lack of adequate transparency and clear policy for addressing racial incidents among township employees. They and township officials have been meeting in recent months to discuss their concerns.
Members say they're still seeking more information about incidents including then-Township Attorney Ira Karasick's comment calling a Black housing official "three-fifths of a human" last year. Karasick stepped down from his position, which was subject to yearly renewal by the Township Council, the same day he issued an apology letter describing the statement as an ill-conceived joke about the three-fifths compromise, an agreement between northern and southern states during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention to county three-fifths of the slave population for determining representation in the House of Representatives. Karasick remains on Montclair's payroll as an employee on terminal leave, and will have collected about $86,000 between the time of his departure and the end of that leave.
The accounts of Karasick’s remarks were made public late last year around the same time the township began another, separate investigation involving issues of race. At least two firefighters say they believe a promotions test’s scoring rubric was deliberately crafted to put them at a disadvantage, disregarding their seniority and penalizing them for decades-old disciplinary incidents. Council members have hired an outside counsel to review that matter as well.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis issued a statement Wednesday saying he was "fed up with this series of incidents and just honestly shocked at the carelessness and stupidity that we've seen with some of them." He told Montclair Local that he didn't have direct knowledge of the new allegation about a police officer, but had heard about it.
"I've had several conversations with our township manager who is working with our Human Resources department and benefit providers to develop and deploy broad tolerance training for township employees this year. ... But what I also want to say is that while training can and will certainly address unconscious bias and include groups or perspectives perhaps not covered in previous training, you shouldn't need training for some very fundamental rights and wrongs," he said. "So we, collectively, need to be looking at what are the environments, cultures and conditions that give people the gumption to utter hateful things like this and how do we nip that in the bud, right now.