On July 5th, 2016 after the Maplewood Fireworks, incidents in which police interacted with youth of color came under scrutiny. The clear racial profiling exhibited by the Maplewood police department during these incidents goes against everything SOMA Action stands for. We demand action. We reject silence. We stand in solidarity.
In the year since the events, the police have said they cannot comment due to an internal investigation. The Township Committee has been gagged and cannot make public statements. It took over a year and 3 OPRA requests (by the Village Green, Walter Fields of the Black Parents Workshop, and Columbia High School Teacher TJ Whitaker) for video/audio/transcripts to be made public.
During that year, community groups including ours have met with the Maplewood police department regarding the Welcoming Operational Order, a directive that provides guidance for police protocol around Maplewood’s recent Welcoming Community resolution. SOMA Action advocated for the inclusion of significant police anti-bias language in that order, much of which the police stated that they already have in place. If our departments leadership was unable to enforce existing anti-bias language one year ago, we have significant doubts that they will be able to enforce these Welcoming Community provisions into the future without significant and systemic changes at all levels.
Furthermore, the lack of ability to admit wrongdoing for over a year and to ask for the community’s assistance in improving practice is the opposite of good community policing. The department requires strong leadership with the fortitude to truly protect its residents, especially in an increasingly authoritarian political climate. True leaders acknowledge their mistakes and tackle them head on with community involvement. We view this entire episode as avoidable if police leadership did not lead with their own biases.
SOMA Action stands in solidarity with Black Parents Workshop in calling for the termination of Police Chief Robert Cimino. We also stand with the Community Coalition on Race in calling for meaningful reform of police practices. Further, we seek enforceable and practical measures to ensure the Maplewood police department moves toward transparency and accountability with mechanisms for purposeful input from the community.
Finally, to any youth who may read this: We, the grown ups, apologize. We let you down. We admit that. We must do better, for you, but also for all of us.
Following is a recounting of some of the incidents that evening and links to the footage from that night.
In one incident, police discharged pepper-spray on youth to “break up a fight” at the corner of Valley and Parker. Additionally, as shown through video and audio footage, a large group of teenagers, mostly people of color, were herded by police towards the border of Irvington. These were predominantly youth of color. Maplewood Police Chief Cimino and Captain Cummis gave orders to move the youth towards “their border,” meaning Irvington. Of note, many of these youth were from Maplewood/South Orange.
Youth report that they repeatedly asked the police if they could go to their homes (in other directions), and were told to keep walking in the direction they were forced to go. They followed instructions and marched. At one point, the police states, “Crowd pretty much quiet.” Yet, it is apparent that there was at least one incidence of the use of pepper spray by the police as they proceeded to herd the youth to the Irvington border.
As the audio/video progresses, the police make numerous calls to “maintain our border” with Irvington, and for the youth to “leave our town,” as if these aren’t our children; as if we are closing ourselves off from and not part of the larger community.
Video footage and incident reports written by police indicate some youth (notably all from Maplewood and South Orange) were arrested. And during this time, officers used closed-fist punches to restrain the youth…. Our kids.
This police behavior is not consistent with our declarations of being a welcoming community. We demand action. We reject silence. We stand in solidarity.
(Coverage by the Village Green)