Years ago, when I was new to an African American mental health advisory board with NAMI New Jersey, we brought in a police officer to discuss the benefits of Crisis Intervention Training. During his time with us, he shared a short but memorable video that has stuck with me ever since. The video began with a car parked on a dark and lonely road. It was raining outside, and headlights were beaming against the left rear and driver side of the car. The image of the car remained in the frame for about 30 seconds; long enough for one to ponder what might happen next. As I watched, I could hear the rain falling on the car and on the concrete. Then a police officer entered the scene. Fully uniformed, he walked up to the vehicle and began speaking to the driver. Nothing violent or terrifying happened in this video. In fact, the point of it may have been lost on some who watched it. That may be why the officer who played the video for us elaborated on the importance of what we just saw. But I already understood. That minute-long video stood out to me because I knew I would never want to be the driver of that car. At the same time, I recognized I would also feel great angst being the police officer in that situation.
Men and women in law enforcement have a precariously challenging job. They must protect and serve whole neighborhoods, intoxicated drivers, sober drivers, victims of domestic violence, those in crisis and more – while not knowing who they will encounter from moment to moment. And for the police officers who do this with integrity, and a devotion and respect for the communities they serve, I am sincerely grateful. I am honored to be related to police officers like this and to be friends with many more who serve communities with that kind of mindset. But the reality is there are many civilians who are afraid when encountering law enforcement. Racial background often plays a role in who feels this way. I, as a Black woman, have personally felt the fear and frustration that comes from negative encounters with police. As people of color it is often our personal experiences coupled with the knowledge of the horrible circumstances, both past and present, of other people that look like us, that give cause for fear and distrust. The names of the adults and children who have been victims of police brutality in this country are sadly too many to name. Despite how much it is debated, without a doubt, our feelings of distrust are valid. What we do not talk enough about is how this lack of trust in law enforcement is a sign of a broken system, and what to do about it. Is there a path to increasing public trust and confidence in law enforcement?
A good start would be the passage of Senate Bill 2656, sponsored by Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Senator Nia H. Gill (D-Essex), and its companion bill A5301 in the Assembly, sponsored by Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Hunterdon and Mercer). This bill is designed to create greater transparency and accountability in policing by making police records subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). I support this bill because I believe it is essential to effective policing and reflects the community’s values. Having transparency between community members and the officers that serve them, seems like a necessary next step in ensuring that citizens and law enforcement abolish the lack of trust that has developed over time. Further, it acts as a bridge between communities and the police officers that protect and serve them. For those reasons, I encourage all New Jersey Senators and Assembly members to support this bill and others like it, because our role as elected officials call for us to protect and serve as well.
Edina Brown is a Councilwoman in Old Bridge and a member of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition.