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NJ town wants chief out after bias outcry, but top cop has support of colleagues

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MAPLEWOOD — The township’s suspended police chief has the support of fellow top cops in Essex County as township officials examine a police department that has come under fire for the way officers handled black teens during an incident last year.

The Township Committee on Tuesday suspended Chief Robert Cimino for 60 days with pay, calling for his resignation, and suspended Capt. Joshua Cummis for 30 days after recently released video and audio recordings from last year’s Fourth of July celebration showed officers shoving black teenagers to the ground while high ranking officers, including the chief, gave direction to move what video shows as a calm group of black teenagers into Irvington, a mostly black city, even though the youth lived in predominantly white South Orange and Maplewood.

Police arrested four people that night, saying some had resisted arrest and that one had spat on an officer.

Committeeman Frank McGehee, who joined his colleagues in a vote of no confidence against the chief, said black teenagers “were herded like cattle out of Maplewood, a town that many of these children call home.”

“When did being black become a qualifying factor regarding residency in Maplewood?” he said during the meeting.

While the township has called for Cimino’s removal from office, Mark Deuer of the Essex County Chiefs of Police, said his organization supports Cimino.

“Chief Cimino is a true leader who has always served with pride, distinction, integrity and transparency,” Deuer said Wednesday in a statement to New Jersey 101.5. “Chief Cimino has a proven track record of being a fair and impartial law enforcement executive.”

Deuer serves as chief of the North Caldwell Police Department.

“Our association wholeheartedly supports Chief Robert Cimino of The Maplewood Police Department. Chief Cimino is a true leader who has always served with pride, distinction, integrity and transparency. Chief Cimino has a proven track record of being a fair and impartial law enforcement executive. Chief Cimino has been a member of our association for 17 years and his knowledge and experience is invaluable to all of us.”

Cimino could not be reached for comment. His future as chief remains in doubt.

Even though it’s been a year since questions were first raised about how police treated the teens, including the use of pepper spray as well as physical force, the recordings were not released until recently. An investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which chose not to prosecute officers, and an ensuing internal affairs investigation by the department, which reprimanded six officers, prevented the Township Committee from seeing or hearing the tapes until July, when the files were released to the public.

Walter Fields, chairman of the South Orange/Maplewood Black Parents Workshop, said he had a sense that he would see the change his groups was hoping for when they got to Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think the evidence was just so overwhelming for this community that the Township Committee had no choice but to remove the chief,” he said.

“Doing anything other than that, after your community has viewed these horrific video tapes and listened to the audio of the chief giving the commands, I think would have not only sent a dangerous signal to Maplewood, but it would actually have incited significant outrage from the community.”

Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams said the committee recognized the seriousness of the situation.

“We worked together as a governing body to discuss what happened, how we want to move forward, and whether or not the chief of police could continue his role as the leader in our community as the chief of the police department. And then we all agreed that that could not happen any longer,” she said. “That’s why we took the moves we took.”

Saying he was “pleased” by the committee’s decision, Fields said he believed it was just the first step in a much longer process.

Tuesday night was not only significant because of the meeting, but also because it was National Night Out, which is aimed to bring communities and police together. Instead, Fields said it was an opportunity for the community to show their support for each other and what they hoped to see happen to the department.

“You’re seeing this problem across the country,” he said. “You’re not seeing communities galvanize the way we did in Maplewood, and you’re not seeing local government leaders respond the way they did in Maplewood, so it is a very significant step no doubt because there aren’t many examples of a community responding this way.”

Fields said he has also requested that the state Attorney General’s office investigate the incident and to oversee the transition to a new administration

“I don’t think many people will trust a department or a township policing and administering itself over this incident when they couldn’t do it in the first place.”

A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office said they had no comment Thursday.

Adams said the committee had been made aware of potential issues following the July 5 fireworks right after it happened, but with the incident being investigated by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the committee was limited in what it could do. That included being unable to comment on the situation or see any evidence.

That review came back with prosecutors opting to not file charges against any officers. The department then conducted its own internal affairs investigation. Adams said that investigation “was not moving fast enough, in our estimation, so we pushed for that to move faster.”

Ultimately, the department’s investigation resulted in one officer being suspended for 17 days for violating the department’s use of force rules and five other officers formally disciplined.

The Township Committee also hired Chicago-based consulting firm Hillard Heintze “to investigate ourselves what the culture and the environment and the operations of our police department and how it’s functioning and what we can to better, as well as to evaluate the events of July 5,” Adams said.

The Township Committee appointed Acting Capt. Jimmy DeVaul as acting chief, and Lt. Albert Sally as acting captain.

Fields said he was encouraged by what he knows about DeVaul.

“He has a very good reputation not just as a police officer but as a human being,” Fields said. “He’s someone who is not only approachable, but is someone who makes extensive efforts to make sure that the community feels as though they are being considered by the department.”

Adams said the steps taken on Tuesday are an example of what makes Maplewood a special place to live and why she believes the town will be better in the future.

“It’s not easy to live with people unlike yourself, whether it’s racially, or culturally, or religiously,” she said. “People in Maplewood want to live in that kind of community but it’s natural to come into situations that are not what we want.”

Fields said community has a long way to go before they can fully put the incident behind them.

“There are still other officers who were involved and we don’t even know who those officers were, we don’t now how they were disciplined, we don’t know what the basis of their discipline was. There are more questions than answers at this point and we need to have some answers.”

Despite the lingering questions, Fields said he believes if the right steps are taken it can mean a bright future for the town.

“I think we are on the verge of doing something truly incredible in Maplewood, New Jersey, in terms of really creating an environment between our police and community where we feel as though that the quality of life is going to be respected no matter who the resident or visitor to our community is,” he said.

Adams had similar sentiments.

“We all have the same goal. We all want everyone who lives here to feel welcome and secure that they live in a safe town that wants them there and that’s what’s so aggravating about the July 5 situation last year.”

Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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