If perceptions are reality, the borough police appear to have a few issues to work out with some of their residents.
In a town hall meeting moderated by the Southern Burlington County chapter of the NAACP on Wednesday night, residents peppered members of the department on some of the tactics deployed in the community.
"Targeted," "under surveillance" and even "neglected" were some of the words used by residents to describe the force.
“There have definitely been different incidents where I can say, because we’re sitting outside of someone’s house around that one area, we get targeted,” a young man said during the meeting about being confronted by the police. “When officers are walking around, it kind of feels like they’re on foot patrolling. They’re not greeting us. There’s no conversation.”
The comments came during an open discussion with members of the Police Department, Borough Council and NAACP to air any concerns residents have with the police. Several dozen residents took part in the meeting at Borough Hall.
“We are looking at this from a standpoint of trying to be proactive rather than reactive,” said Crystal Charley, president of the local NAACP chapter.
“Things have already happened,” Charley said. “People are already feeling mistreated and neglected. Those are all valid. But in order to go forward, we’re trying to bridge the gap. So we’re looking for feedback from everyone.”
Police Chief Scott Pearlman told the residents that he knows officers aren’t perfect every day, but assured them that no one is being targeted because of their race. But that doesn’t mean officers will not respond to calls made to police and officials of suspicious activities.
“When you’re calling, you’re expecting us to do something, to come and make sure it’s OK,” Pearlman said.
A situation as minor as a car parked outside a resident’s home and the ensuing response can be perceived differently by people even on the same block.
“If somebody calls us and we check out somebody, who you think is a good kid in town, and he might be, but we have to make contact with him because somebody calls. Then we’re wrong for doing that, so it’s a fine line,” Pearlman said.
Charley said she understands the frustration felt by residents and officers.
“Perception plays a big role, because now the relationship is so strained,” she said. “While (officers) may have actually been out there on Saturday and Sunday, it felt like surveilling. It didn’t feel like community policing. It’s all about how we’re perceiving it and what the relationship looks like right now.”
The chief told the residents that officers’ actions are monitored.
“We’ve had (in-car) video since about 1996,” Pearlman said. “If we come to your house, we may not have video, but we have audio because our cameras are sensitive.
“If we get a complaint, one of the first things we do — you watch football — we go to instant replay,” the chief said of the footage and audio captured during every interaction officers have with the public during traffic stops and residential calls.
Even though no specific incidents led to the town hall meeting, borough and NAACP officials wanted to give everyone a chance to voice their concerns.
“We don’t want to see Ferguson happen in any of our towns,” Charley said of the Missouri community in the center of a debate on police use of force after a fatal shooting of an 18-year-old black man in 2014.
After the meeting, resident Oscar Morris, who earlier said he felt the police “neglected” some areas of town, indicated that the meeting was a good start but that more can be done.
“We need communication from the (residents) and the police force,” Morris said.
“We've got to all pull this thing together to make it a better neighborhood, a better community.”
Officials apparently agreed.
At the urging of New Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, the chief plans to create a Community Advisory Committee to discuss a variety of police-related issues as well as continue the department’s outreach programs with local youth.
Despite some of the negative feedback, Pearlman said the town hall meeting was a success.
“I would have been disappointed if only five residents attended and only told us we do a great job,” he said. “I believe that my officers do a great job and are professional in the service we deliver. However, I know that none of us are perfect, and there are always ways you can improve on how we provide service and protection to our residents.
“We were certainly not afraid to hear from our residents, (and) we are always working to open our lines of communication with those we serve.”