TOMS RIVER - An emotional Justin Jacobs asked Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer and dozens of local police leaders a question. Were recent events in Memphis, where five police officers have been fired and charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols, a template for how to handle police violence against civilians?
Jacobs asked his question Friday at a town hall held to discuss policing in the wake of Nichols' death. The 29-year-old died three days after he was severely beaten by officers after after a traffic stop. The event at Ocean County College, put together by the Prosecutor's Office, drew New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin as well as police chiefs from throughout the county.
Toms River resident Jacobs, who is Black, noted how quickly the five Memphis officers, who were Black, were dismissed and charged, compared to the slower reaction to the white officers who were involved. His voice cracking with emotion, Jacobs recounted his fear when he was recently pulled over by an officer while driving to a friend's house in the evening.
"I want to know if what happened to those Black officers, if that now becomes the template?" Jacobs asked.
"I am sorry you felt that way when you were pulled over," Billhimer said. "I think it is the new template. You are checking us. The public should expect us to act that way."
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Platkin told the audience that New Jersey has adopted required police training in de-escalation, and is moving toward a system of licensing police that will make it easier to remove bad officers from the force.
"There has to be trust, in order for us to do our jobs," Platkin said. But he said events like Nichol's death undoes a lot of positive steps the state has taken in terms of police accountability, including requiring body cameras for officers, updating the state's use of force policy and giving officers training on how to respond to those with mental health issues.
Barnegat Police Chief Keith A. Germain, president of the Ocean County Chiefs Association, said police must do a better job communicating the steps they are taking to improve interactions with the community.
"If, when we show up, you look at us and have to worry about a negative interaction, we aren't doing it right," Germain said.
Billhimer and other law enforcement officers spoke of their disgust and despair upon viewing the video footage of Nichol's beating. Billhimer became emotionsl as he described his 16-year-old daughter's reaction; she became so upset she was unable to continue watching the video.
"The issue is the complete lack of humanity," the prosecutor said. "That was depraved to me."
Anthony Carrington, the Chief of Detectives for the Prosecutor's Office, said, "the incident in Memphis really moved me." Carrington, who is Black, has three sons, two of them also in law enforcement.
Describing the fired Memphis officers as "thugs in a police uniform," Carrington also noted that law enforcement must work extra hard to reach out to all communities, as the Memphis officers have become "the face of law enforcement" for many.
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Dr. Fred Rush, past president of the Lakewood NAACP, urged police agencies to continue to diversify.
"I don't know where we are in trying to get more people in uniform who look like me," Rush said. "Let's try to get more people who look like the communities we live in."
Platkin said all police agencies in the state have to report the demographics of their departments, which can then be compared with community demographics. He admitted the state has a long way to go to recruit more officers of color.
Jackson resident Asaiki Simon admitted its still difficult for her to trust the police.
"Trusting the police is extremely difficult for me," said Simon, who is Black. "I will have more faith in this group when we don't have to wait for something to happen to have a meeting like this."
Jean Mikle has been covering politics, government and environmental issues at the Jersey Shore for almost 38 years. Reach her @jeanmikle or email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Tyre Nichols death testing NJ residents' trust in the police