One week after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck and drained the life out of the 46-year-old, members of The Southern Burlington County, Willingboro and Vicinity and the Greater Delaware Valley branches of the NAACP, joined the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office to sponsor a virtual candlelight event.
On Monday, June 1, the Burlington County organizations invited members of the public to post a photo of a lit candle and take eight minutes and 46 seconds to reflect on Floyd’s life and the events that have unfolded around the country in the wake of his death. Representatives from both the prosecutor’s office and the Southern Burlington County NAACP emphasized vigils and protests are only the first steps toward change.
Crystal Charley-Sibley, president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP, said she and Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina have worked together in recent years to build bridges between the African American community and law enforcement. She said the partnership is important because there will be follow-up and continued conversations between both groups. Her hope is that the conversations continue on a community level as well.
Charley-Sibley said George Floyd’s death marks a shift, in that his murder has sparked outrage in people who have not been outraged before. She said silence in the face of injustice is often viewed as consent, agreement or betrayal.
Charley-Sibley added it’s not enough just to have members of the African American community speak out: members of law enforcement need to lend their voices too. She believes protests and rallies are a cry for justice, but there has to be a follow-up for any long lasting change to take place.
“When the dust settles, we have to really take progressive measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Charley-Sibley said.
She and Coffina met shortly before the prosecutor was sworn in, and he said in the years that have since passed, they’ve built a mutual trust and an ability to be candid with one another. In 2018, officers from all of Burlington County’s police districts and members of the NAACP chapter met for a roundtable discussion.
Coffina said his overwhelming takeaway from that meeting was not that residents were seeing local incidents of police brutality, but that African Americans felt a sense of being singled out. He said it’s that sense of implicit bias that his office is grappling with how to tackle.
Coffina said to date, New Jersey has implemented policies to combat bias. Instituting the use of body cameras has provided the ultimate unbiased witness and has added an increased sense of transparency in policing. He added the state’s last three attorney generals have also pushed for and instituted de-escalation and bias training for officers.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the prosecutor’s messaging to Burlington County police has been to utilize their de-escalation training. He wants officers to recognize that anyone they’re interacting with is under a lot of stress right now and tensions are high.
Throughout the last week, that message has been repeated. He said now more than ever, officers need to take a step back and be sensitive to the pain and stress people are feeling.
Coffina said while Burlington County has not had any allegations of racially motivated police brutality during his time in office, if the feedback he’s hearing is that there is a sense of feeling singled out then that’s something he wants to address.
Coffina said he wants police officers to acknowledge their biases and unlearn them. That means doing things like evaluating if a situation is actually suspicious, or if personal biases are making officers think a situation is suspicious because of who’s doing it.
“It really is getting to that next level down,” Coffina said.
The prosecutor is considering implementation of implicit bias training for local Burlington County officers. But the pandemic has put mass training on hold, so he’s investigating potential alternative, virtual options.
Charley-Sibley echoed Coffina’s sentiment that New Jersey does have progressive police policies in place. But in her eyes, it comes down to getting the word out about them and making sure they’re carried out appropriately.
She applauds peaceful protests and demonstrations, but if real change is to occur, residents need to get engaged in the political process. Charley-Sibley said that doesn’t have to mean becoming a legislator or joining the police force. She encourages residents to attend their local council meetings, vote in every election and educate themselves about how their tax dollars are being spent.
“I don’t think residents have enough participation in that process,” Charley-Sibley added. “We need to vote in every single election; that makes a difference. If you’re participating, you’ll see what the police budget looks like, how they’re spending their funds, how much of it goes to community policing.”
Charley-Sibley also encourages residents to get involved with organizations such as the NAACP that are focused on perpetuating change. Residents can join any of their local NAACP branches or follow the organization’s pages on social media to stay up to date. Her NAACP branch is engaged in an array of initiatives to provide direct support to local community members.
“While the current unity we’re seeing across this nation is very positive, what we need is for that unity to be long-lasting, and we really need to see it all the way to the finish line with respect to police reforms and certainly how we deal with racist Americans across the board,” Charley-Sibley maintained.
She said in order to create that change, people need to be active, and this could mean joining an organization, reading what legislation is being proposed, paying attention to what state senators are proposing or writing letters to elected officials to voice their concerns.
“I think [George Floyd’s murder] made more people look inward; it really made them look inward,” she Charley-Sibley said. “If your convictions tell you these things aren’t right, take a stance and do something that’s productive.”