By JOHN T. WARD
Some two dozen Monmouth County cops and community members gathered in the basement of a Red Bank church Tuesday afternoon to tackle a hot topic: police-involved shootings.
Among the aims: understanding why such incidents are increasingly polarizing.
Pilgrim’s pastor, Reverend Terrence Porter, insisted from the outset that participants discuss “the pink elephant in the room:” the different ways in which police stops and shootings, particularly of African-Americans, are perceived by law enforcement and civilians of color.
It quickly became clear that those two groups can have divergent takes when Porter played a video of a recent incident at Montclair State College in which a cop trained his gun on young African-American men in response to a report of an argument.
Porter went around the room, asking those present what they’d seen.
“I saw guns drawn in a situation where I’m not so sure the response fit what was occurring,” said one woman, an African-American.
A police officer saw an “appropriate” response in which “police officers took control of the situation for their safety.”
“I saw a stop where nobody got hurt because they were cooperating,” said another cop.
“The response didn’t fit what was going on,” said another community member.
While some of the responses were prefaced by a caveat that more information was needed than could be ascertained from the video alone, Porter said the disparate takes illustrated that “in the African-American community, we are perceiving this a lot different from law enforcement, and sometimes optics drive the discussion.”
“Blue lives matter, though that’s true to the same degree that black lives matter,” Porter told the gathering. “Yet now in our society, we use those two things to divide us, rather than to bring us together, and that’s because the narrative is being talked about from a divisive standpoint. And we are being constantly bombarded with that.”
Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, during what he termed an “ask me anything” session, outlined for the gathering the protocol followed when there’s an officer-involved shooting in the county.
Investigations in those cases are immediately taken out of the hands of local police and handled by his office’s professional responsibility unit, said Gramiccioni, first with an eye for potential criminality. If none is found, the matter is sent back to the municipality for possible administrative action, he said.
Since becoming prosecutor in 2012, Gramiccioni said, “I’m sad, but also happy, to say that in just these six years, we’ve prosecuted successfully 18 police officers in criminal court,” he said. He did not specify how many of those concerned officer-involved shootings.
In an effort to head off shootings, all police in Monmouth County are now required to undergo “de-escalation” training, Gramiccioni said.
Gramiccioni also said that no matter how unjust a motorist or other civilian may feel a police stop is, “even if it’s total BS,” the best course of action is to “comply with a police officer’s directives and orders.
“You might think it’s completely unjust or discriminatory or otherwise, but save that fight for another day” and cooperate, he said. The aim, he said, is “to avoid an escalation of conflict, escalation of emotions.”
Lyddale Akins, a pastor to congregations in Asbury Park and Oceanport who also serves on the prosecutors’ community law enforcement team, said that faith leaders have a key role to play as liaisons in the aftermath of officer-involved shootings.