‘We have to do better as human beings’

Gloucester County leaders reflect on moving forward in aftermath of George Floyd’s death

Protestors gather at Riverwinds in West Deptford to peacefully come together in support during the Black Lives Matter movement. Residents worked together with the West Deptford Police Department to coordinate a safe route for the protest. (Matthew Shinkle/The Sun)

When Gloucester County NAACP President Loretta Winters first saw coverage of George Floyd’s death while he was in Minneapolis police custody, she didn’t think it was real.

“My first reaction? This has to be fake news,” Winters recalled. “This can’t be true.”

In realizing it was, in fact, true — a black man begging to breathe, begging to live as he was held down at the neck by the knee of a white police officer for nearly nine minutes — Winters asked the question that has reverberated throughout the nation since the May 25 incident: Why?

“We have to do better as human beings,” she said. “America’s greatest strength has always been its diversity. Always. Unifying our diversity has been our greatest challenge.”

Leaders across Gloucester County share in the horror of Floyd’s death. While it is difficult to find sense in the senseless, locally the crime is being used as a reflection of what actions are being taken — and what actions need to start — to move South Jersey communities forward.

“As a department, we are collectively outraged by the senseless death of George Floyd. It has set law enforcement back 50 years, at least,” Washington Township Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik said. “We’re looking for ways to do better and be better.”

The WTPD follows recommendations from former President Barack Obama’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, an executive order signed in December, 2014 in response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the police shooting death of Michael Brown. 

“We didn’t invent anything. We’re just using these guidelines, and it seems like it’s working,” Gurcsik added.

The department follows recommendations on police body cameras, social media engagement and policy and oversight in internal affairs. It regularly holds de-escalation and implicit bias training, both from a manual and in hands-on exercises with fellow officers. It also puts community caretaking at the forefront.

“I think our officers are realizing more than ever the importance of our community caretaking and building relationships with those we serve here in town,” Gurcsik said.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put a temporary stop to public events, the WTPD typically hosts a number of community-oriented activities throughout the year geared toward a variety of ages. The aim is to build a foundation of trust, so community members will feel comfortable approaching officers — both in emergencies and non-emergencies.

The WTPD also does its best to attend events when invited, such as a candlelit vigil hosted by the Gloucester County NAACP at Atkinson Park in Washington Township on June 1. 

“The events we hold, and the events we are invited to, help us gain a better understanding of each other,” Gurcsik said. “We need the community, and the community needs us, more than ever.”

Members of the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders were also in attendance at the NAACP June 1 vigil. In addition to the freeholders and WTPD, the NAACP was joined by representatives from the prosecutor’s and sheriff’s offices, local dignitaries, school officials and — in Winters’ estimate — upwards of 750 members of the community.

“Freeholder Jim Jefferson was one of the speakers who helped to memorialize the life of George Floyd and the countless others who have died at the hands of systematic racism,” Freeholder Director Robert M. Damminger said in an email. “The freeholders and others were extremely moved by the stories and support shown by all participants.”

Winters was amazed by the vigil’s turnout. She is buoyed by the way communities are coming together around South Jersey.

“That’s what we’re all about — the community coming together and joining hand in hand. It’s an amazing time in history,” Winters said.

Bringing the community together has been a longstanding tradition in Deptford, where Mayor Paul Medany, much like Gurcsik, discussed the importance of going into the community to build rapport and trust.

“Local mayors have to be concerned with our local communities,” Medany noted. “What we try to do — and what we have done in Deptford, our township council — over the years we’ve concentrated on building community spirit.”

The mayor and council want residents to be familiar with their elected officials. They want to be approachable. They want to build community relations — something Medany believes will  greatly improve things if done in communities and cities around the country.

“We’re all a big jigsaw puzzle here. We’re all a piece of that puzzle,” he said.

Harrison Township Mayor Louis Manzo, who also serves as the township’s public safety director, also believes it is the job of law enforcement and government to take the lead and bring communities together. Manzo said that starts by ensuring the Floyd family and public at large see justice in George Floyd’s death.

“As leaders, it’s also important that we recognize the public has a basis to doubt that process, requiring us to repeatedly and emphatically assure transparency,” Manzo said. “We should support peaceful protests and stand with protestors seeking justice. At the same time, we need to keep the peace and maintain the safety of our citizens and their property.”

As horrific as Floyd’s death is, the incident has made people “get it now,” according to Winters. 

She said the best thing to do now is to get out and vote.

“You can be angry. You can be upset. But get out there and vote, and vote people in who are 100 percent for democracy, for the Constitution that gives you the fundamentals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she advised.

Winters said it’s also important not to remain silent.

“Your silence is almost like you’re condoning it,” Winters said. “They tell kids in school — if you see something, say something. We need that in corporate America, in police departments. If you see injustice, say something. 

“Because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”