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CRDA funds Atlantic City youth programs, extends neighborhood policing

ATLANTIC CITY — The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority provided $600,000 in funding Tuesday to two programs that focus on city youth.

The Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City and Turning Point received grants of $275,000 and $325,000, respectively, to help administer vocational and educational programs for Atlantic City youth.

The Explore, Learn & Earn program at the Boys and Girls Club will double in size from 30 to 60 participants. The CRDA grant matches funding from Atlantic County.

The six-month workforce development program, in its second year, provides three course tracks — STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math), hospitality and culinary, and health care — and culminates with industry-recognized certification, said Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City CEO Stephanie Koch. The additional CRDA funding also will allow the club to expand transportation services, Koch said.

Turning Point’s Leaders in Training program is also in its second year. The Rev. Collins Days, of Second Baptist Church, and Joe Jingoli, co-owner of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, started the initiative to help at-risk city youth in 2019, in partnership with the Atlantic City Police Department, Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, city government, the Fellowship of Churches and Atlantic County, among others.

Nearly 200 youth, ages 14 to 20, will participate in an eight-week program, engaging in community cleanup efforts, workforce development and team-building exercises.

The CRDA Board of Directors also voted to extend the Neighborhood Coordination Officers program through 2021. The NCO program assigns two officers to each of the city’s six wards and three others to social service outreach campaigns to help foster greater community engagement and communication with the department.

Executive Director Matt Doherty said the NCO program has been “very successful” and is “extremely popular in the city.”

“It’s a great program. These officers do a great job, and I’m glad we’re supporting this,” said board member and city resident Gary Hill.

In other business, the CRDA voted to amend its three-year contract with concert organizer LiveNation Entertainment because of the impact the coronavirus had on the summer schedule. Jam band Phish had to cancel a three-day show on the Atlantic City beach in August due to COVID-19.

LiveNation will organize and promote select Atlantic City beach concerts, festivals and events in 2021, 2022 and 2023 based on the terms of the $1.8 million contract approved last year.

The board also approved purchasing and demolishing a property on the beach block of Tennessee Avenue for an amount not to exceed $425,000. The land and building, located at 155 Tennessee Ave., has a listed combined value of $225,000, according to the state tax map.

The property, more commonly known as the Memphis Belle Inn rooming house, is located in the middle of part of the Orange Loop business and entertainment district, named for the three orange-colored deeds in the Monopoly board game.

In Somers Point, one neighborhood's parkway-traffic solution is another's headache

SOMERS POINT — Homeowners along Laurel Drive have long asked for relief from bumper-to-bumper summer traffic, trucks and speeders along the 25 mph, two-lane street.

Barely a mile long, the mostly residential road handles all southbound traffic for Exit 30 of the Garden State Parkway, which means virtually all tourists from New York, North Jersey and Philadelphia travel it on their way to and from the heart of Ocean City.

Laurel Drive ends at Route 9, and the continuation becomes the partly four-lane MacArthur Boulevard, which was expanded to help move traffic faster just a few years ago, and leads directly to the Route 52 causeway to Ocean City.

Now, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which owns and operates the parkway, has a plan to close Exit 30 to both relieve Laurel Drive of its traffic burden and eliminate dangerous backups on the parkway as people wait in line to exit there.

“We would welcome it,” said Laurel Drive resident Michelle Carideo, who said a few years ago her daughter was hit by an ambulance as she tried to cross the street to get to the Jordan Road School. Her daughter was not seriously hurt, Carideo said.

Just a month ago, one of their cars was hit when a driver lost control and ended up in the Carideos’ yard. That was the third such accident that has damaged their vehicles in the 23 years they have lived there, Carideo said. They have seen one of their dogs hit and killed, and countless fender benders.

The state’s plan is to route all traffic to and from Ocean City to the 45 mph, two-lane Somers Point-Mays Landing Road from a full interchange at Exit 29, which now only provides for a northbound exit and southbound entry.

But the plan just moves the problem to another neighborhood, says a large group of Somers Point officials and business owners. And it deprives MacArthur Boulevard businesses of the traffic they need to survive.

“It’s a horrible idea for one simple reason: You are not solving a problem, you are moving it in front of someone else,” said Dennis DiOrio, owner of DiOrio’s Circle Cafe on MacArthur Boulevard. “They should leave it the way it is now in my opinion, but then I have something in it for me, too.”

That’s because his restaurant is located on the route that would suddenly be a lot less used if the state plan goes through. He and other owners along MacArthur Boulevard have invested in their businesses because of the traffic that flows by, DiOrio said.

Kelli O’Connor lives in the Hickory Point development, right near Interchange 29. It’s a development of about 30 mostly new, large and expensive homes. She had not heard about the proposed plan but wasn’t looking forward to having the exit she can see from her front yard become a full interchange.

“It sounds like a lot of congestion,” O’Connor said, adding she will seek out more information.

The Turnpike Authority does not have a timetable for the project, a spokesman said Monday. It is part of a $24 billion, long-term capital improvement plan for using the revenue from the 27% toll increases on the parkway it approved in May.

“None of the projects on the long-term list has been scheduled or approved,” said authority spokesman Tom Feeney. “From that long-term list, the authority will adopt a rolling five-year capital program. The first of the rolling five-year programs is likely to be presented to the board for approval this fall.”

Every year, an updated five-year program is presented to the board for approval, Feeney said.

Garden State Parkway exits 29 and 30

No traffic studies have been done related to the Exit 29 project, and won’t be until it makes it onto a five-year plan list, he said.

DiOrio said he and others have fought similar proposals from the parkway twice in the past 20 years, and twice the state agreed it would be best not to add to traffic at Exit 29.

So it was surprising to see the idea crop up again, he said.

Greg Sykora, of the Somers Point Business Association and owner of ERCO Ceiling, Blinds & Floors on Chestnut Street, said this is the first time the state has proposed closing Exit 30 completely.

“If you feel the need to do something, make a truck entrance or exit only (elsewhere),” Sykora said. “It’s the trucks which are the nuisance to the people on Laurel Drive.”

Everyone who lives on Laurel Drive now moved there knowing it was a route to and from the parkway, he said.

Somers Point City Council recently voted to oppose the plan to close Exit 30, and Ocean City Council may take a similar stance, Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen said.

“The new Route 52 causeway and bridges — along with the four-lane approach on MacArthur Boulevard in Somers Point — have worked exceptionally well in moving traffic to and from Ocean City,” Bergen said in an email. “I know Mayor (Jay) Gillian supports Mayor Glasser in wanting to preserve Exit 30.”

Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser said there are many problems with the new route, including adding unacceptable levels of traffic to already busy Route 9 and Somers Point-Mays Landing Road.

“I know we have problems on Laurel Drive, and we have asked the state to set weight limits (on vehicles that can use it), and to provide grants to redo the street,” Glasser said as he stood at the corner of Route 9 and Somers Point-Mays Landing Road, a small intersection that would have to handle more parkway traffic if the plan becomes reality. “But the problems on Laurel Drive don’t compare to the problems that will happen if they shift everything over here.”

Somers Point-Mays Landing Road is already backed up in summer, he said, since it handles a lot of Route 40 traffic on the way to the shore from Delaware and parts of southeastern Pennsylvania.

In addition, directing all traffic to Exit 29 would require vehicles leaving Ocean City to make two left turns — one onto Somers Point-Mays Landing Road and another onto Route 9 to the exit.

Left turns slow traffic down considerably, he said, and will likely back it up for miles.

Atlantic City teacher goes viral with children's book list to spark conversation on racism

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — An Atlantic City teacher has gone viral for a book list she created on Twitter in June to help teachers and parents talk to children about race and racism.

Brittany Smith, 27, of Egg Harbor Township, a preschool teacher at the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City, said she was taken aback when she heard about backlash over a commercial in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on the children’s channel Nickelodeon.

The commercial, which aired on several ViacomCBS-owned television networks, featured the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” on a black screen for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd before Floyd died of asphyxiation May 25. Floyd’s death in police custody sparked nationwide protests and riots against police brutality.

“There was a lot of discussions about ‘children are too young,’ ‘they don’t see color,’ ‘they don’t understand these things,’” Smith said. “As an educator myself, I realized that’s not the case. And I felt like it was important to know that there are ways to have these discussions with children, and it’s important to have these discussions.”

Smith, a Black woman, said children in the Black community often have to have these discussions with their parents at an early age. The teacher in her knew one of the simplest ways to spark discussion is through books.

“So I just started a thread on my Twitter of 15 or so children’s books” that would help parents and educators begin the conversation, she said. “It ended up going viral, which is not what I expected at all because at the time I only had 300 followers.”

The Twitter thread has now been liked more than 400,000 times and retweeted 212,000 times, including by celebrities, politicians, athletes and authors. Smith has heard from educators all over the world and has been featured on talk shows and in print.

“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Smith said, calling her segment on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” a “mind-blowing experience that I wasn’t expecting.”

She said her favorite interview was on Good Morning America’s third-hour segment, “Strahan, Sara and Keke.”

“We really got to have a nice conversation about everything,” Smith said.

The book list includes two of her favorites: Lupita Nyong’o’s “Sulwe” and “Intersection Allies: We Make Room for All” by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council and Carolyn Choi.

It also includes “The Proudest Blue” by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, of which Smith wrote, “It’s necessary for me to add this book to the list. A coworker had lent it to me one day for my classroom, and it nearly brought me to tears. So beautifully written, with such beautiful imagery.”

Smith said the feedback has been very positive, both from the public and in her community. She is proud that through her tweet, children of color will see themselves represented in books, conversations about race can happen in school and at home, and that children in less diverse settings can be exposed to students of different backgrounds.

“Acceptance of diversity should be the norm,” she said.

Smith said she wants to continue using her platform to advocate for children of different backgrounds and to continue to have discussions with teachers, administrators and thought leaders in regard to developing more thoughtful and inclusive curriculum.

“My school is really good at inclusion and representation, but I know it’s not like that everywhere. I would love for different administrations to really make this a priority,” she said.

Eventually, Smith said, she wants to release her own children’s book. In the meantime, she will continue to add to the book list on her website, Smith’s Twitter handle is @wanderingbritt_.

Atlantic County officials discuss police transparency, deescalation in virtual town hall

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said Tuesday that even though society has come a long way, it still has a lot of work to do.

Tyner, along with other county officials and police chiefs, stressed the importance of communication throughout the latest virtual town hall hosted by the state Attorney General’s Office to discuss use of force.

The Zoom meeting was part of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s 21 County/21st Century Community Policing Project. Cape May County’s meeting was held July 15. Cumberland County’s was held Monday.

“This is a difficult time in our nation and in our state,” Grewal said in his opening remarks before he had to leave the call due to prior obligations, “and while we’re adjusting to the challenge of COVID-19, we’re also faced with civil unrest marked by the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And as shocking as George Floyd’s death was, it was not a unique tragedy.”

Grewal was joined by Tyner, county Chief of Detectives Bruce DeShields, Atlantic City police Chief Henry White, Galloway Township police Chief Donna Higbee and Atlantic City Councilman and NAACP chapter President Kaleem Shabazz.

County Victim Witness Coordinator Raymond Royster moderated the meeting, which touched on use of force, deescalation protocols and more.

Part of what makes New Jersey ahead of the curve when it comes to police-civilian relations is the consistency between departments all over the state, White said.

“The (use-of-force) standards and reporting procedures are pretty uniform,” White said. “Any time, here in our department and the rest of the county, an officer uses force during the course of his duties, a use-of-force report is done and that report is forwarded to the Prosecutor’s Office; and then from there, now it’s being forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office.”

White added that the attorney general is working on a statewide database to archive all uses of force among police officers, not just excessive force.

In 2012, the Atlantic City Police Department received 66 complaints of excessive force.

That number dropped to three in 2019, which White attributed to training and new policies that seek to limit the use of force as much as possible.

Deescalating a situation, said Higbee, is one way to limit it.

“Ninety percent of this job is your communication skills, your verbal skills, how you talk to people, how you listen to people,” Higbee said, “and actually adjust your habits as a responding police officer to those things that you’re hearing and seeing.”

Tyner would like the county to implement a special-needs registry. Residents would submit information about someone in their home who may be deaf, nonverbal or have another condition that can affect how an officer approaches a situation if a 911 call is made to that address.

“So many times, we’ve had a tragedy occur when there was just simply a miscommunication or the person was nonverbal or deaf and couldn’t understand,” the prosecutor said.

White echoed the idea of progress being a two-way street. In addition to the efforts the police are making to improve, he urged citizens to not meet officers with resistance right away.

“I’ve seen too many times where routine stops or (stops for) a simple, minor cause spiral out of control and force had to be used, and sometimes deadly force because of noncompliance,” White said. “So even if someone feels that the police stopped them unfairly or shouldn’t have stopped them, you have to comply with the officer’s instructions.

“When you get a resistant person, things sometimes quickly escalate out of control, especially if the officer is not properly using deescalation techniques.”

For Royster, who was previously a case worker for the state Department of Child Protection and Permanency, the concept of compliance was taught to him at a young age, as it was for many Black men.

“I remember us having ‘the talk’ with our fathers or our male figures telling us exactly what you just said,” Royster said in reference to White’s comments. “We’re trained as youths to comply with law enforcement. No matter what you’re feeling, how angry you may be, if they’re right or wrong, your goal as a son is to come home back to your parent.”

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner held a joint press conference with the Pleasantville Police Department Tuesday afternoon to highlight law enforcement officials who responded to a shooting during the Pleasantville-Camden high school football game last Friday. (Nov 19, 2019)