NJ cops were ordered to kick out black teens from the town they lived in
MAPLEWOOD — The fireworks weren't the only explosive moments at last year's Fourth of July celebration, which ended in four arrests, the eventual discipline of several police officers and outraged calls in the community for the police chief's ouster.
Police officers have been accused of using excessive force against crowds of mostly black teenagers. And newly released recordings of police radio transmissions that night capture police brass instructing officers to push a group of black teens across the border into Irvington. Officers are then told to "maintain our border" once the youth are across the city line.
The problem? The kids didn't live in Irvington.
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The year-old incident has exposed racial tension in one of the most diverse parts of New Jersey. About 35 percent of Maplewood and 29 percent of South Orange are black. The middle-class communities are suburbs of Newark and neighboring Irvington, which is 85 percent black. Irvington also has a higher crime rate than its neighbors.
New Jersey 101.5 this week obtained copies of the audio recordings. The voices ordering officers to push the teens across the city line were identified by local news website The Village Green as those of Chief Robert Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummis.
The city also released hours of video from police dashcam recordings, which show more than a dozen officers herding a small group of young men and women through a neighborhood.
The parade of cops and young people is orderly until a commotion happens off camera. Video shows two groups of officers taking down two young men and arresting them. One of the teens is punched several times by a number of officers while one officer reaches for what appears to be a chemical spray.
Public attention is back on the year-old incident after the Township Committee this month ordered the release of the recordings for the first time. The police department announced on Friday, ahead of the release of the recordings, that six officers had been disciplined.
The incident was investigated by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, which declined to press criminal charges against any officers, spokeswoman Catherine Carter said. In April, the prosecutor also declined to charge Cimino and Cummis with racial profiling.
The officers, however, faced discipline by their department for violating rules.
One officer was suspended for 17 days after the department found that he violated rules on the use of force.
Five other officers are facing "formal discipline for violating department rules and regulations," according to a statement released Friday by the police department. The department also said all officers "have received additional training to help prevent a recurrence of the violations that were determined to have occurred."
The department did not release the officers' names or further details. It is rare for a police department in New Jersey to release any details whatsoever regarding internal investigations into officers.
The township has not addressed the orders Cimino and Cummis issued to officers to move the crowd of teens into Irvington. Requests for comment from the mayor and public safety director in Irvington were not immediately returned Tuesday.
It is not clear from the recordings whether the officers knew where the teens lived. But the teens complained about being marched out of their town immediately after the incident with posts on social media and speaking to their parents.
"We were told the next day following the fireworks, young people came to us and said the police first made all of us walk into neighboring Irvington," said Walter Fields, an activist with a group of black parents in Maplewood and South Orange that is calling for the chief's removal.
"Why weren't white children and youth from Maplewood marched into neighboring Milburn after the fireworks? That's why we believe this was clearly a case of racial profiling and we believe the department has to be held accountable."
Fields, chairman of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop, said the video and audio do not support the claims made in the police reports.
"It doesn't jive with the video, and it doesn't jive with the audio when a police officer is saying things are relatively calm," he said. "We're saying OK, something is awry here because of the brutality we see on the video. And let's say there were young people who were a little boisterous, does that allow you to slam a child on the pavement?"
"The township went ahead and disciplined the officers before anyone in the public could see the extent of the excessive force that was used," Fields said. "Now we have a situation that now that the videotape has been revealed and the audiotape has been revealed, we have an uproar because people see just how egregious the police department was in its treatment of black youth that evening."
Mayor Victor DeLuca said he had no comment ahead of Tuesday's meeting.
According to reports first published by The Village Green last year, police reported that a group of between 150 to 200 "teenagers or young adults" were running on a township street after the fireworks. Police responding to the scene reported a large fight in the area, including one involving two women, around which other fights developed.
The people involved in the fights did not follow directions from the officers, according to police, causing the officers to use their pepper spray on a part of the group. The officers were able to clear the area and other neighboring areas with help from the South Orange and Millburn police departments.
Also that night, officers on the border with Irvington encountered disorderly crowds, though not as large as in the other incident, they said. At just before 11 p.m. police reported a male spit in an Irvington police officer's face. Police say he resisted arrest even after they forced him to the ground.
But teens said police instigated confrontation and then sprayed the crowd when the teens tried to avoid walking into Irvington.
On the audio recordings released by the township, a voice identified by The Village Green as Chief Cimmino, orders officers: "We're going to send them east."
A voice identified by the news site as Capt. Cummis says: "Notify Irvington they are going down Elmwood toward their town."
Cummis then says: "Once they reach the Irvington border and they're in Irvington, I want you to maintain our border..."
"Maplewood units, I want them to maintain, once they leave our town, maintain our border."
Fields says it's important to note that police directed the teens into Irvington, which has a curfew.
"All of those children who were being forced in that direction, if they crossed that border they were subject to being detained by the Irvington police," he said. "You look at this and you see the irresponsibility of the police department leadership."
The Township Committee was scheduled to meet on Tuesday night and Fields said his group were expected to call for the removal of the chief.
"We believe there's been an ethical breach on the part of Chief Cimino," he said. "We believe that he is responsible for the treatment of our young people that evening because he gave the orders, he was on the scene at the time, and we believe that he has to be held accountable."
While he was unsure of what to expect from Tuesday's meeting, Fields said he hopes to see more changes come after it.
"It speaks to the reality of African-Americans living in suburban communities," he said. "We're always focusing on the inner cities, whether it's Newark, or Paterson, Trenton, Baltimore, you name it. The fact of the matter is the 2010 Census showed the majority of African Americans now live in suburban communities. We're in these smaller communities now and we don't receive the same type of attention as folks in Newark or folks in Los Angeles or Atlanta, so much of this stuff happens under the cover of darkness."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com