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Racism, Police Conduct Discussions Continue

Quanette Vasser-McNeil discussed personal experiences where she was treated unfairly by police officers because of her skin color.

By Eric Conklin

WILDWOOD – A community discussion on systemic racism and racial profiling was held at B.W. Maxwell Memorial Field, in Wildwood, Aug. 25.
Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron, Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, and Wildwood Police Chief Robert Regalbuto addressed systemic racism and racial profiling within local police departments. The discussion was hosted by Cape May County Indivisible, a local political activism group.
The indoor gathering limit forced the discussion outside of the Byrne Community Center, under August’s late-summer sun. The heat, however, didn’t turn a roughly 25-member, multiracial group away from seeking answers to a topic still on many Americans’ minds.
Atop the discussion was the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office’s investigation into a use-of-force incident by a Wildwood police officer, who was seen on video repeatedly punching a Black man outside of a pizzeria, on Pacific Avenue. The incident happened when officers arrived to stop a fight at the restaurant, the investigation revealed.
In a video released to the public, Sutherland and Sgt. Aaron Sykes, of the Prosecutor’s Office, said the investigation led to additional findings, including surveillance video of the man resisting arrest and combatting officers, prompting the officer in question to punch him repeatedly.
Sutherland explained the investigation’s findings and how it was determined the officer didn’t exceed the use of force. Many in attendance, however, felt the prosecutor’s response wasn’t enough, with several still questioning the officer’s behavior.                                                                                     
One audience member felt the officer used a chokehold, and described what he saw in the video. Sutherland explained the maneuver and encouraged the group to participate in New Jersey’s rewriting of its police use-of-force policy.
On the attorney general’s website (nj.gov/oag/force/index.html), the public was asked to submit their opinion of police tactics no later than Aug. 21 through an online portal to help amend the policy, something Sutherland said is happening for the first time, perhaps, in the nation.
“You can actually describe what you just did to me and say, ‘I consider that a chokehold,’ and that will be considered,” Sutherland said.
“Specifically to race, we’re not looking to identify anyone by race, regardless of the color of your skin, your choice of religion, your choice of sexual orientation,” Chief Regalbuto said, when asked about the types of conversations he has with his officers about racial profiling. “We try to treat everybody the same every time. I think most police agencies are doing that.”
“Having been from Wildwood, I don’t find that to be true,” replied Crystal Hutchinson, of Cape May County Indivisible.
The July 12 incident remained the focal point throughout the discussion, which spawned personal experiences with police officers from several African Americans in the audience.
Tensions were tight throughout the discussion, with attendees taking strong stances against the leaders’ answers. Some didn’t feel as though Byron, Sutherland, and Regalbuto appropriately addressed their concerns, with some suggesting they didn’t fully acknowledge racial profiling as a top issue within the police departments, including Wildwood’s.
Quanette Vasser-McNeil, of Whitesboro, called the leaders’ overall response to the issue “disrespectful” and “dismissive.”
Hutchinson added that she, too, felt like the issues of systemic racism and racial profiling weren’t being properly addressed.
“It’s like being an alcoholic,” she said. “The first step to admitting you have a problem is admitting that you have a problem. You have to admit that there is a problem in the U.S., in New Jersey, and, specifically, in Wildwood. You have to admit it. That’s why we’re here.”
Regalbuto replied to Hutchinson, acknowledging he feels there are racial issues within law enforcement, but that determining if an officer’s actions are racially influenced is difficult. He said he reviews arrest statistics to determine if minority groups are disproportionally arrested by Wildwood officers.
Overall, the men encouraged those with concerns or racial-influenced encounters with police officers to report the incidents to the corresponding department.
Toward the end of the discussion, the leaders and audience members shared solutions to end systemic racism and racial profiling. Some took stances such as educating more police officers about minority communities they serve.
Others, like Byron, felt the issue is a generational problem. He, too, felt like educating police officers about minority communities could be a solution. He also added that facilitating more curriculums about current racial issues into schools could help.
“It also starts at the home, as well,” Byron said. “I’m from Philly. I was brought up in a mixed neighborhood.”
“If you’re brought up in a racial-tension situation, there’s a really good chance that that’s going to be when you’re grown up,” he added.
Locally, Byron acknowledged most Wildwood officers don’t live on the island and don’t fully understand the community’s nature, something he wants to change. Regalbuto also said he is actively seeking to add one bilingual officer on each squad. Wildwood’s police force, he said, currently doesn’t have a Spanish-speaking officer.
To contact Eric Conklin, email econklin@cmcherald.com.

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