Top HCPO officials discuss use of force, police discipline, & Bostwick Ave. incident in Jersey City

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Two of the top officials from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office hosted a town hall event last night to discuss use of force, police discipline, and the Bostwick Avenue street fight in Jersey City, among many other topics.

“I’m known for speaking my mind and getting myself into trouble sometimes so I hope I don’t do that right now, but I think we really need to reevaluate how we train our officers,” Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez said at the beginning of the over two-hour session.

“And that might be a start. We absolutely have to change how we – and I’m not suggesting that we train our officers to be racist, that’s not my point – but I don’t think enough attention is given to maybe recognize all of the cultural question that are there.

While billed as a virtual town hall, there was a small audience in attendance, one of whom was Jersey City NAACP President Nathanial Legay, who wanted to know if the HCPO is provided with a list of officers throughout the county who are repeat offenders.

“There’s not a list compiled of repeat offenders. What there is is a detailed record and all of those, all that information does exist, in files. We don’t create lists and disseminate those lists, but all that information, pursuant to the [state] attorney general guidelines of the internal affairs process,” stated HCPO Assistant Prosecutor Pete Stoma.

” … In terms of disciplining officers, there are hurdles: I’m not saying it’s impossible and I’m not saying we can’t do better under the present system. What I am saying is that there are hurdles, legal hurdles, to be able to suspend and fire officers.”

Stoma further stated that every complaint against a police officer is supposed to be documented by the department’s internal affairs unit.

“If an officer is considered a repeat offender, you can only discipline that officer the next time her or she commits a wrongdoing. But as the chiefs will tell you, you have to look at the prior offenses in order to discipline them each time: it’s progressive discipline,” Suarez indicated.

Several Jersey City activists also attended, asking a number of questions about a controversial, large street fight that occurred on Bostwick Avenue last month.

“There’s no justice at all: the same officer who used a baton in that incident is currently right now on the streets, patrolling the streets, and … anybody who knows what happened on Bostwick [Avenue], just imagine the psychological pain for somebody who saw the officer who beat them is still on patrol,” said Jersey City NAACP PAC Chair Chris Gadsden.

Gadsden was one of several who called for Officer Bryant Rowan to be suspended for using his police baton after a viral video of the incident with over 18 million views surfaced.

Their urging came after Mayor Steven Fulop, Public Safety Director James Shea, and Police Chief Michael Kelly said the police reaction was measured after someone tried to grab an officer’s gun.

Suarez responded by saying that her office will not be commenting on the incident until a thorough review is completed, admitting that the process is taking longer than initially expected.

“I said to you, and I’ll continue to say to you: we’re going to take as long as we have to to make sure we get it right. We are reviewing every single video. We are talking to every single witness and talking to everyone that we have to: that’s why we take so long. And I get that it’s taking a long time … even I’m saying: ‘when are we moving this along?’

She also made a commitment to look at the body camera footage with Gadsden and others who are interested.

Still, Frank “Educational” Gilmore later pressed the issue, demanding a clear cut answer to combat the narrative put out by city officials.

“On the surface, it looks like the officer’s actions was justified: everything’s back to normal, back on [his] post, he don’t have his shades on, but he’s back on post. I just need some substance or some answer to that,” he exclaimed.

“Unless, or until, you hear it from me: no decisions have been made … I’ve already said we’re going to investigate it thoroughly” Suarez.

Kelly, who joined the meeting in person late, made it clear that he was not involved with the investigation, but indicated that the incident brings up the issue of police training and protocols.

“I have not had any discussions with the [HCPO] about that video … I have to line by line: what is the officer’s training, what did he do? Next line: what is his training, what did he do?”

Kelly continued that he felt that current police training is “archaic” and “militaristic,” and that when talking about use of force, police officers are “always” allowed to use force greater than what’s being used against them, according to current New Jersey standards.

He admitted that may not be the best approach in 2020 and that he’d be open to having a conversation about changing that so that officers can only use force equal to what’s being used against them.

“If that’s going to save lives, if that’s going to save police officers from going to jail: sign me up.”

Other top law enforcement officials on hand included Union City Police Chief Nichelle Luster and Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante, the latter of which who said that most officers are very hesitant to use force in the cell phone age era.

“When a police officer has to use deadly force, with everybody here that has a cell phone out, you can get it going viral: what if that person committed a sexual assault against your daughter, fired shots at a police officer, and then that police officer takes that person’s life,” he began.

“Or, if an innocent person that got out of a car, and has a verbal [altercation] with a police officer, the officer gets frightened, and shoots him, and that person did nothing: guess what? On video, it looks horrible.”

Ferrante also said that Hoboken has the highest amount of deescalation, CIT trained officers since Prosecutor Suarez started the program, which began before it was mandated by the state.