FLEMINGTON, NJ - Following up on the July 28 “Use of Force” Virtual Town Hall he participated in along with county prosecutors in Warren and Somerset counties, as well as other experienced law enforcement professionals in the region, Acting Hunterdon County Prosecutor Michael Williams delivered a report and feedback from the event to the county board of chosen freeholders.
Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren was among the over 100 participants who tuned in a week ago, as many questions were read aloud and answered during the informative and collaborative virtual session.
Williams provided the board with an outline of key takeaways and issues members of the public have provided to the trio of county prosecutors, and first he stated the impetus behind New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s initiative for all 21 Garden State counties to offer such town hall forums.
Each county prosecutor, Williams said, acts as the chief law enforcement officer of their county, under the direction of the attorney general. New Jersey’s Use of Force policy was edging two decades old this year, and Williams said under Grewal’s directive (2019-05), the policy is due for updating.
Williams noted the backdrop of well-known tragic events including the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and many other instances in the recent past involving the police officers’ Use of Force on African Americans and other minorities, which in those cases turned deadly.
“The police’s use of force and how police conduct themselves is a topic of great interest at this time,” he said. “The goal of the joint presentation and town hall is to get the public’s view on police use of force. All the views and comments we received as county prosecutors will be shared with the AG’s office. We want to hear from a broad cross section of our state, we want to hear from police officers, Civil Rights advocates, religious leaders, victims’ rights organizations and most importantly our community members. We want the public’s input on how we can better police our communities.”
“The views of the public are very important in this, and we want to take everyone’s views into account so we can update the use of force policy for law enforcement throughout New Jersey,” he added. "We are always open to doing what we do better, and it’s especially effective once we gain input from a variety of individuals.”
Along with Hunterdon County’s acting prosecutor and Acting Hunterdon County Chief of Detectives Frank R. Crisologo, last week’s panelists included Warren County Prosecutor James L. Pfeiffer, Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson and Somerset County Police Academy Richard Celeste, Ed.D, retired deputy chief of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. Areas of concern and comments from participants identified during last week’s town hall, Williams noted, carried common themes for police and law enforcement supervisors/directors to reflect on and share with the attorney general.
“People are looking for more transparency on the police use of force; more education for law enforcement officers; more training in dealing with individuals who might have mental health disorders or issues; greater de-escalation training in order to decrease the amount of force police use or the types of force they may use,” he said. “People are seeking increased police accountability when they employ use of force, and they want public access to use of force investigations. People suggest more police visibility in neighborhoods so the officers are viewed as a part of the community itself.”
Drawing a comparison to the Floyd incident, Williams said one request that came forward is for police officers to be obligated, as part of employment, “to report misconduct by any fellow officers.”
Another suggestion from the town hall is for a decreased use of “military-type equipment” by local police officers.
Williams told the Freeholders one very interesting concept is for more “citizen awareness” on how to react during a citizen-police encounter.
“Certain members of the public, during the town hall, were asking prosecutors how they or the public overall can better deal with police officers when we’re faced with them in either a motor vehicle stop, a request for assistance or with receiving a knock on the door from police,” he said. “I thought that was really interesting.”
Williams said that once the town hall was announced, and even during the July 28 event, there was an influx of questions, ideas and comments for the local county prosecutors to review and share with each other and, subsequently, with Grewal’s office.
“Over 100 questions were asked and all of them were forwarded on to the AG’s office,” Williams said. “Overall this was a great success and those who participated in the town hall gained some excellent information. We all appreciated your assistance.”
Van Doren said the high rate of participation for the town hall displays people’s interest in the topic, and “that they care about what’s going on.” He called the event informative and thanked Prosecutor Williams and his counterparts in the neighboring counties.