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Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Middle Police Engage with Public in Committee’s 1st Meeting

Members of the Middle Township Law Enforcement Community Engagement Committee

By Karen Knight

WHITESBORO – About a dozen Middle Township residents June 8 were briefed on law enforcement training and community policing initiatives, with a chance to voicetheir concerns during Middle Township Law Enforcement Community Engagement Committee’s first public meeting.
Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner, who led the meeting, said it was structured to “share information and hear from the public.” He was “pleased” with the turnout, noting, “There was a lot of good discussion. That’s what was important.”
The committee was formed in 2020 by Middle Township Committee (https://bit.ly/3zj8zvG) to “give a voice to a diverse group with a shared mission – to foster trust and mutual respect between the police and the community.” 
Leusner said this was the first of two community meetings the committee will hold each year. Six of the 10 members attended the nearly two-hour meeting, held at the Martin Luther King Center, in Whitesboro.
Training Overview
Sgt. Mark Higginbottom, Special Services Unit supervisor, and Cpl. James D’Alonzo, head training officer, presented an overview of 21 training programs police officers have received over the past two years, including classes on proper interactions with the LGBTQ community; understanding the Jewish Orthodox religion and culture, and how to interact with them; developmental disability awareness training; cultural diversity, and classes on recognizing biases and how to make sure they do not influence actions and decisions. 
Thirty-three officers received taser training, with the remainder of the patrol division trained after a July class.
“It takes someone doing something 300-500 times to create a new skill,” D’Alonzo said, “and 3,000-5,000 times to take a bad habit and turn it around.”
“Resiliency training” is one area the department has focused on, and D’Alonzo explained this training helps officers deal with the “traumatic events they face nearly every day and focuses on an officer’s mental and physical health.”
“We want to be healthier throughout our careers,” Higginbottom said, “because if we are healthier, we can do our jobs healthier.” 
New Jersey was the first state in the nation to require this training (https://bit.ly/3cA0VU4).
Community Policing Initiatives
In a review of community policing initiatives, Leusner said the Cops and Coffee program restarted, with the next meeting slated for June 27.
A new food delivery partnership began June 9, when police officers joined forces with Cape May Cares, of Rio Grande, to deliver food to families without transportation. 
“This is a pilot program in Middle Township,” explained Patrick Miller, a social services employee with Cape May Cares, and a committee member, with a one-year appointment.
Fifty spots will be available this summer for the Police Youth Camp, according to Leusner. Currently, there are about 100 applicants. Participants will be recommended by school representatives or determined by lottery.
National Night Out, an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie, is scheduled for Aug. 3. The local Progressive Black Initiative (PBI) group, led by Anthony Anderson, who has a two-year appointment to the committee, is working with the police department on those plans.
A new program where police officers and youth will interact should start mid-July, at the No Limits Academy, a facility in Rio Grande that has a boxing facility, and performing and learning centers. 
Today, officers come into the facility and interact and play with the youth, and the goal is to expand the opportunities through their programs.
Community Discussion
Rosie Jefferson, program manager/director, Rainbow Summer Camp, expressed concern about the “drinking, drugs and dice” happening after hours at the Martin Luther King Center for the past year. 
“I want to be sure that we are giving parents the safe program that we say we are providing,” she said. “I don’t want them to find broken bottles, bottles, blunt wrappers, etc. We need to eliminate that activity at the pavilion.”
The group discussed options, including the addition of cameras and signs on the premises, increased police patrols, and events ending before sunset.
Committee member Quanette Vasser-McNeal, former president of the county’s NAACP chapter and current Middle Township Committee candidate, questioned whether increasing car patrols was the right approach, when “we have a community of color afraid of police officers and police officers afraid of us. There have to be other ways. It might be better if the officers get out of the cars and walk around, interacting with the youth, for example.”
Leusner was also questioned about the force’s lack of diversity. He noted there are 52 white, two Hispanic and two Black officers.
“We are a Civil Service Department, so every three years there is a test,” he explained. “Middle Township has a residency requirement. We try and get the information out to the community, but because of some of the national attention to police, kids are hesitant. They are not interested because of the current climate or peer pressure. It’s a national trend we are seeing, and we just try to get better information to our stakeholders.”
According to its 2020 annual report (https://bit.ly/3gh5QLX), the Special Services Unit plans to develop a recruitment plan by the end of 2021 to increase the number of qualified minority and women employment applications to the department.
Another resident asked how the department knew the training was effective and used by officers during situations, and Leusner explained a series of audits, reviews and random checks conducted during cases by fellow officers, administrative staff, the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and judges.
“Every use of force case is reviewed,” he said. “If not done correctly within our policies and procedures, then we take corrective action.”
According to the 2020 report, the department had 28 “use of force” situations: 20 against white men and three white women; three against Black men and one Black woman; and one against a Hispanic man.
However, the resident countered that all the reviewers have a “conflict of interest” because they are all within the police system, dependent on each other.
Leusner said he was “confident” the review practices were conducted properly and noted the court system allowed for lawsuits if there were issues.
Another resident said she spent some time in the court system pre-pandemic and was “blown away with the majority of Black people being over-sentenced.” She questioned whether the Prosecutor’s Office tracked sentencing, claiming the “systemic racism is so unbalanced.”
No one from the Prosecutor’s Office was in attendance.
Anderson said the prosecutor was fairly new in his role (two years) and he thought he was “pretty fair,” but added he would address the concerns with the office.
To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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