Echoing recent comments from the state’s top elected officials, a handful of Black civic and religious leaders told a Senate hearing Monday that while there’s an urgent need to address racial inequities in law enforcement, they don’t want to defund the police.

Pastor Joseph Woods of St. Phillips Baptist Church in Hamilton said the goal of activists is to improve policing, not end it.

“Police reform should not eliminate local police departments, but it must encourage all police officers to have an equitable value for all life,” Woods said.

Woods said there can’t be community if there are elements of society who see all Black men as criminals and other elements that see all white police officers as racist.

“I believe it is possible to be both a respecter of Black life and a supporter of local police at the same time,” he said.

Sen. Ronald Rice, who was a Newark police officer from 1972 to 1980, said the Newark Police Department is probably 500 officers short of what it actually needs.

“That’s a bad word because I’m never going to vote to defund police departments,” Rice said. “I’ve been trying to enhance the resources to police departments. But I want to change the way police departments function in our communities.”

Rice said the issues in cities can’t be fixed with community policing but require a look at the bigger picture, such as job training and getting rid of abandoned buildings.

Other suggestions mentioned at the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing ran the gamut from banning chokeholds and reviewing qualified immunity to simply not having police present at the polls on Election Day.

Reva Foster, chair of the Black Issues Convention, questioned why it’s necessary to have police officers sometimes stationed in schools or parked outside election polling places.

“Is this necessary or can another way be done so people will not feel that they are not welcomed, as some people feel when police cars are seen?” Foster said.

Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, said he hopes police don’t park outside polling places – but that there’s a workaround.

“You can encourage folks to vote from home, so they don’t have to go,” Cryan said. “That would be swell, as much as we could.”

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Foster and Woods both called for more diversity in the hiring of police officers. Foster said a designated number of officers should have to live in the community. Woods said Hamilton officials acknowledge there are hurdles to hiring Black officers in the township without breaking those hurdles down.

“Police reform must not be reviewed as an attack on police but as a need for more accountability for their actions and more accessibility of all segments of our society,” Woods said.

The hearing followed a marathon meeting held in July. Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, said more hearings on the topic will be conducted.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.