SOUTH ORANGE — Village officials are collaborating with a research team based at Seton Hall University on a pilot program by the name of "Community Care & Justice," which they hope will be a model for other police departments in Essex County and beyond.

Trustee Donna Coallier said like many communities following the police custody death of George Floyd last summer, discussions intensified in South Orange as to what police could be doing better to engage with those they serve.

Coallier said SOPD is already a progressive unit committed to the concept of continuous improvement, but that a greater focus could be put on interactions which do not necessarily have an emergency or negative connotation.

"How can we get to more of a health and wellness focus, how can we get to crisis prevention, as opposed to the 911 crisis response mode?" she said.

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Village President Sheena Collum then found the name and resumé of Dr. Juan Rios, director of the Master of Social Work program at Seton Hall. Much of Rios' work involves deciphering how best to train police officers in the areas of mental health and de-escalation.

He said his vision of "compassionate law enforcement" encompasses several components of social justice, and that while South Orange is already off to a good start, the need to constantly improve must remain.

"We're talking about self-determination, integrity and worth of a person, human value, and embedding these really core values of social work into every aspect of the community," Rios said. "We cannot implement these resources and think about reimagining anything regarding public safety until we really look at what are the community values."

Essex County is involved in the pilot as well, already having established a committee on racism, bias, and discrimination, so the ideas and practices being discussed and assessed in South Orange could spread to neighboring towns.

And that could be soon; with residents now giving input into what exactly the community needs from its police force, this emphasis on "compassion-based wellness" should be in practice by this fall at the latest.

"This is an ongoing process," Coallier said. "This is continuing improvement. We're not going to run around and do stuff and call ourselves victorious and then be done."

The South Orange Police Department currently runs a Community Police Collaborative which will work in tandem with the village's Community Care & Justice program.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email

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