Editor’s note, July 31 8:24 p.m.: this article has been updated with comments from Maplewood Township Committee members Greg Lembrich, Frank McGehee, India Larrier and Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams.
Recently released video of the night of July 5, 2016, in which four local youth were arrested following Maplewood Township’s annual fireworks, shows the aftermath of Maplewood Police officers using pepper spray on at least one teen, and also depicts officers punching and kicking another youth who is on the ground being handcuffed.
“Ow, F*** no, ow, ow!” one teen is heard screaming after an officer apparently used pepper spray on him in front of the Elmwood Sweet Shop on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Boyden Avenue. In a dashcam video from a police car, the male teen is shown wiping his eyes with his shirt.
Minutes later, a large group of officers escort a group of youth down Elmwood toward the Irvington border. Suddenly, the police begin to run and surround the pepper sprayed teen and another male teen. (The incident report states that the teen spat at an Irvington Police officer.) The police push them to the ground and handcuff them. Police appear to be punching the second teen, then, one police officer walks over to him and kicks him in what appears to be his head or upper body.
The incident report from that night states that the teen was being disorderly and resisting arrest; it can be found here:
[Editor’s note: the following video shows portions of the events distilled from many hours of tape, that Village Green has edited together. It depicts a youth being pushed and pepper sprayed, and the subsequent arrest of that youth and another.The township blurred parts of the footage in which the faces of minors were shown. The contents include profanity and the images may be disturbing to some viewers.]
The incidents of that night led to disciplinary action against six officers, one of whom was suspended. An investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office found insufficient evidence to warrant a criminal prosecution of Police Chief Robert Cimino and Captain Joshua Cummis, but an internal affairs investigation as well as an independent investigation called for by township leaders continues.
The events have drawn strong condemnation from residents and advocacy groups, as well as deep concern from town officials. Many have questioned whether the arrests and the use of force was justified, why police appeared to escalate rather than defuse the situation, and why the youth — many of whom apparently lived in Maplewood and South Orange — were corralled in the direction of Irvington. The SOMA Black Parents Workshop, led by Walter Fields — who along with CHS teacher TJ Whitaker and The Village Green filed an OPRA request for the release of the audio and video — has called for Cimino’s resignation and is urging residents to attend the August 1 meeting of the Maplewood Township Committee. (The meeting will be at the Maplewood Police Headquarters, at 1618 Springfield Avenue in Maplewood; the public portion of the meeting begins at 8:30 pm.)
Calling the videos “appalling” and the police officers’ actions “reprehensible,” Fields said, “…Cimino is accountable for the officers’ brutal and disrespectful treatment of our youth. It was upon Chief Cimino’s command that Black youth were herded out of town. The Township Committee must dismiss Chief Cimino, and those officers who engaged in excessive force. There is no place for them in our town and in our police department. And there will be no trust in our police department until they are gone.”
Citing the ongoing investigation, Mayor Vic DeLuca declined to comment on the incident or on Cimino. “Our consultant, Hillard Heintze, begins work in Maplewood on Monday,” DeLuca told Village Green on Saturday. “The Township Committee will meet with them on Tuesday evening. Hillard Heintze will be introducing themselves during the public portion of Tuesday’s meeting.”
“Like so many in our community, I was shocked and saddened by the events of July 5, 2016 and believe significant changes are required in response to this incident and other Maplewood Police Department matters,” said Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich. Noting that township officials have been advised to limit public statements on the issue to avoid compromising the investigation, Lembrich said the TC will begin to address the issues on Tuesday.
“I am confident that my Township Committee colleagues and I will take steps in the coming weeks and months to appropriately address this appalling situation within the bounds of our authority, and I look forward to working with residents and community leaders to rebuild trust in our Township and restore confidence in our law enforcement.” Lembrich is out of the country and will not attend the meeting in person but will join the closed session portion by telephone.
“…I am deeply concerned about the events of last year and have been for many months,” said Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams. “While I didn’t see the video until very recently, I’ve been disturbed by what happened in this community and hope that this entire experience will help us move even further in a positive direction than we have over the last two decades. We must never stop making sure all of our citizens are respected and treated in a manner that demonstrates what the majority of our community wants and that our children are treated with the respect they deserve.”
“Maintaining the safety and well-being of our youth is our top priority,” said Township Committeeman Frank McGehee. “I look forward to Tuesday’s Township Committee meeting where we will introduce Hillard Heintze, LLC whom we have retained to investigate this event independently. As I have stated previously, I am deeply troubled by these events that have occurred – not only as an elected official – but also as a parent, resident and person of color.”
Township Committeewoman India Larrier said, “…it goes without saying that it is very important that we vigilantly safeguard the values we espouse. The TC is seeking to do so, even as we hear from many concerned residents. We are indeed listening and will be very careful, once all the facts and investigation results are in, to fully address the situation.”
The events began shortly after the fireworks concluded, when a large crowd of teenagers gathered on Valley Street near Columbia High School. Written incident reports from the evening and the audio files show police responding to a fight on Valley and Crowell and at the 7-11 on Valley and Parker. After breaking up the fight and subduing a reportedly “unresponsive” crowd with pepper spray, things seemed to calm down.
A few minutes later, police audio reveals that a large crowd was headed down Parker toward Prospect Street. An officer is heard asking “Any fights at this time?” and the response is “Just an agitated group.”
As the crowd seems to grow more orderly and is moving past Valley and Parker, the tone of the commands in the audio tapes changes, with Cimino and Cummis issuing orders directing officers to move the group to the Irvington border, and requesting mutual aid from South Orange and Irvington. It is not entirely clear from the videos why police begin moving the crowd toward Irvington; at one point Cimino can be heard saying, “We’re gonna send them east” and Cummis says, “Get ’em down Elmwood.”
The Community Coalition on Race released a statement that read in part: “We stand in solidarity with all those who were hurt and traumatized by the experience of being mistreated by the Maplewood Police after the July 5, 2016 fireworks and with those now witnessing this event on the released video. Racial disparities in police conduct cannot be tolerated here or anywhere. We intend to be a model integrated community that is welcoming not just to people who live here, but also to the people in our neighboring towns who visit and participate in all that we have to offer—parks, public events, and more. The culture among our police officers should be consistent with the culture of the community: inclusive and anti-racist.
“While it’s shocking to some to witness that such a tradition is alive right here at home in our diverse, welcoming, and charming little town – these were Maplewood and South Orange kids after all who were tackled, kicked, and herded into Irvington – this incident is only one example of others that have transpired in Maplewood under the leadership of Chief Robert Cimino,” said Dean Dafis, a CCR trustee and a candidate for the Maplewood Township Committee in a statement sent to The Village Green. “I have met many of Maplewood’s finest who proudly serve and protect us, who say they have lost faith and confidence in this Chief and his ability to lead them out of the dark shadows of old school ‘black box’ policing and into an era of bias-free ‘community policing.’ This video makes it obvious.”
We continue to review the video footage and will provide follow-up articles after further investigation.