Protect and serve: Police, NAACP discuss relations in county

Roundtable discussion aims to bridge the gap between law enforcement, black community

By KELLY FLYNN
The Sun

On Thursday night, members of the Southern Burlington County NAACP and officers from 10 Burlington County towns came together at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Moorestown to have a candid dialogue about the relationship between police and black communities.

“Sometimes we try to water down this conversation, and I think that until we’re ready to talk intimately, the problems are going to continue,” said Crystal Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP.

The “More Justice, More Peace II” event featured a roundtable style of discussion with representatives from Cinnaminson, Evesham, Lumberton, Maple Shade, Medford, Medford Lakes, Moorestown, Mt. Laurel, Palmyra and Riverton in attendance. Marcus Sibley, communications chair for the Southern Burlington County NAACP, thanked the officers in attendance and said both groups have a role to play.

“The point of us being here is people understanding what their job is. Your job is to protect and serve. Our job as the NAACP is to advocate for the voiceless,” Sibley said. “Unfortunately, on both sides people haven’t been doing their jobs. That’s just fact.”

Sibley opened up the discussion by inquiring about traffic stops, and he questioned why multiple officers may show up for a routine stop, which he said adds an “intimidation factor” to the situation.

Scott Pearlman, Palmyra’s chief of police, said at times, officers may radio for backup during a stop. He said sometimes more than one officer will respond to this call as it is typical to have backup during a stop. Oftentimes, however, it’s not necessary for there to be more than one or two cars at a scene unless the driver has outstanding records or there are multiple people in the car, Pearlman said.

Christopher Chew, chief of Evesham Township police, said officers are oftentimes just as fearful as the driver during a stop. He said when they approach a vehicle, they don’t know if the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or has committed a serious crime.

“There is no such thing as routine,” Chew said. “For us, if we thought it was a routine car stop, that’s how we get hurt. “

Francine Cartwright, NAACP New Jersey executive board member, said she has lived in Moorestown since her son was 3 and today he is a rising senior at Moorestown High School. She said at times, she has found herself being a “little bit more protective” of her son.

Cartwright explained that her son recently got his license, and for almost a week, she didn’t let him drive on his own. She said she was fearful of what might happen to her son as a black man alone in a car.

“I’m just scared,” Cartwright said. “I don’t know what people see when they see you.”

Martha Goodman, a resident of Monmouth County, said she appreciates the police chiefs who were in attendance but stressed that younger, inexperienced officers need to hear these messages too.

She described an incident where an inexperienced officer responding to a report of a home invasion up the street from where her 11-year-old son was, pulled a gun on her son. She said her son did not fit the description of the perpetrator and was simply helping a woman cross the street at the time. She later found out that the officer hadn’t even been on the force for a year when he mistakenly pulled the gun on her son.

“We feel fear, and we are people in need of healing,” Goodman said.

Darlene Foye, a Willingboro resident, inquired about what programs officers have in place to recruit African Americans. Officers explained that a lack of African American applicants, test score requirements and lower regional salaries have all been obstacles to recruiting African American officers. In total, there are only 10 African American officers across the Southern Burlington County towns represented at Thursday night’s meeting.

Foye suggested that local departments trying recruiting from historically black colleges such as Cheyney University and Lincoln University. She said criminal justice majors would be receptive to hearing about work as a police officer.

Sibley said moving forward, the NAACP wants to be involved in the recruitment process. He said their members are also eager to meet local officers, and when the police host events, they want to be invited and to have an opportunity to speak with officers.

“We all have a role in getting us to a better place,” Sibley said.