South Orange Village is partnering with Essex County and Seton Hall to promote and facilitate the development of community wellness and crisis prevention programs through the Community Care and Justice Initiative.
The initiative was launched during a virtual town hall on March 7 by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum. The program hopes to partake in a reimagining of law enforcement and address issues such as de-escalation and implicit biases.
The initiative will be led by trustee Donna Coallier, the chair of the Village’s Health and Public Safety Committee, and Dr. Juan Rios, director of Seton Hall University’s Master of Social Work program.
“We’re currently in the process of conducting a community values, assets and needs assessment, and this will help us establish the community values,” Rios said. “For example, if we value social justice, what are we doing behind that as a community?”
Rios previously worked with the Newark Office of Violence Prevention where he assisted in training police officers to safely engage with individuals experiencing mental distress or neurodivergence.
“Being a part of CC&J is about taking a public health approach,” Rios said. “It’s not about putting a social worker in public safety and saying ‘okay, now here’s someone to respond to these problems.’ It’s a community-wide effort.”
Also assisting with the initiative are Dr. Thomas Shea, a former police officer and director of Seton Hall’s police graduate studies program, and Dr. Sara Wakefield, a sociologist and researcher at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice.
Before Shea became involved with the CC&J, he had been conducting research into views among police officers regarding recent policing-related events.
Shea said he and Rios have extended his research into South Orange where they continue to gather feedback and insights from SOPD officers.
“The more I spoke to Juan Rios about [the research], the more he felt it would be a good fit for what they are doing in South Orange,” Shea said.
Wakefield, who lives in South Orange, said she will be attending a meeting in April to discuss her role as liaison between the CC&J and the Community Policing Collaborative (CPC) committee.
The CPC was “established to advise the Township of South Orange Village Board of Trustees regarding its oversight of the Village Police Department, particularly with respect to its interactions with Village residents and their children,” according to the Village’s website.
“Many of the interactions police have with the public are not counted in any way, shape or form,” Wakefield said. “What I like about the program is that it says to South Orange that we care about recognizing and counting these experiences and then evaluating whether or not we’re doing well.”
Shea and Rios both expressed interest in what the CC&J refers to as “911 diversion,” where an alternative response could be provided to mental health-related situations that may not require an armed law enforcement response.
Rios discussed a prospective community mental health auxiliary team, which would “partner with licensed professionals and community members trained in mental health to be the first to respond rather than a badge and a gun.”
Rios said the CC&J would not implement such a program without the necessary data and research to support it.
Shea said he believes police would overwhelmingly be in favor of 911 diversion, adding that “a lot of them think they are not trained or equipped” to respond to nonviolent individuals experiencing mental health crises.
“The only distinction is if the person has a history of violence; obviously you do not want to put that responder at risk,” Shea said.
“Can we predict accurately what is needed on the basis of what might be a 30 second 911 call?” Wakefield said. “There are a lot of people in my field debating that.”
Shea talked about the importance of communication and understanding in relationships between police and the rest of the community.
“If your knee-jerk reaction is anger and dislike, try an approach with kindness, and I think you will be surprised by the result,” Shea said. “And I say that to all sides of the issue.”
Rios said he encourages Seton Hall students who are interested in becoming involved with the CC&J initiative to reach out to him to form connections and discuss ideas.
Louis Motta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org