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'We need allies': Cumberland prosecutor, state officials talk police reforms, justice in wake of George Floyd's murder
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'We need allies': Cumberland prosecutor, state officials talk police reforms, justice in wake of George Floyd's murder


State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal hosts a virtual town hall Wednesday called ‘Let’s Talk About It: Building Police-Community Trust Across New Jersey.’ With him are Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, top left, and Richard T. Smith, president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP.

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae doesn’t let her 22-year-old son walk down the block to visit his friend at night.

She makes him drive instead.

“Because I’m fearful of the fact that somebody may perceive him in his own neighborhood as a threat and call the police on him,” Webb-McRae said during a virtual town hall event Wednesday. “We have to talk with our white counterparts about very uncomfortable conversations, because this isn’t only our problem, it’s their problem, and we have to become allies in how we change it, how we change it personally and how we change it systemically.”

Her son should never feel threatened when encountering other people “just for being who he is — a brown human being,” she said.

The virtual town hall, “Let’s Talk About It: Building Police-Community Trust Across New Jersey,” hosted by state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal with an introduction from Gov. Phil Murphy, focused on building police-community relations. Panelists included Webb-McRae and Richard T. Smith, president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP.

It comes in the wake of more than a week of protests and demonstrations against police brutality in South Jersey and across the country in response to the death of George Floyd after his May 25 arrest in Minneapolis.

Derek Chauvin, a white police officer with the city, has since been fired from the department and has been charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death.

The aim of Wednesday’s event in New Jersey was to promote “a culture of professionalism, accountability and transparency among New Jersey’s law enforcement community,” according to a news release, and was the latest installment of Grewal’s “21 County, 21st Century Community Policing Project.”

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“COVID disrupted our community meeting schedule,” Grewal said, adding he’s thankful the events went to a virtual format. “Because we need to stay connected and engaged now more than ever. Not just because of the pandemic that we’re trying to get through, but because of the crisis we are dealing with right now — a crisis in law enforcement, a crisis in justice, a crisis that’s touching every part of our country in this particular moment.”

Grewal spoke about initiatives his office has been working on over the years, including directives about releasing body camera footage and other recordings from police-involved shootings and ensuring prosecutors don’t have conflicts before investigating police-involved fatalities, as well as taking input from community leaders and stakeholders, because “systemic change requires systemic buy-in.”

On Tuesday, Grewal said officials will begin updating guidelines governing the use of force by police — something that hasn’t been done in two decades, he said — implementing a statewide database for use of force and advocating to require a statewide licensing program for all officers, which is already done in at least 43 other states.

In addition, Atlantic City and Millville will be part of a study to determine the feasibility of a statewide crisis intervention program.

During the town hall, Smith said Floyd’s murder was an “unspeakable tragedy,” adding police brutality against the black community “has been an ever-present occurrence,” and calling for the arrest of three other officers involved.

Minnesota law enforcement officials later Wednesday charged Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Kueng, the three other officers, with aiding and abetting murder.

McRae, the first woman and African American prosecutor in Cumberland County’s history, said justice is not just a noun, but a verb that needs to be practiced every day, quoting activist Cornel West that “justice is how we show love in public.”

“We need allies, because while this is a police issue, this is a societal issue,” Webb-McRae said. “We can’t expect to reform law enforcement without reforming all of the systems that I would argue that COVID-19 has let laid bare in society on how black and brown individuals are treated differently, are suffering in a way that our white counterparts are not.”

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Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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