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Stockton receives $700K DOJ grant to study police reform in Atlantic City, Pleasantville

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A new federal grant is putting Atlantic City, Pleasantville, and Stockton at the forefront of police reform in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded Stockton University a $700,000 grant to implement and evaluate new police intervention tactics in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, the university announced at a news conference Monday.

Only three to five institutions a year are awarded this competitive DOJ grant, said Stockton Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Nusret Sahin, the principal investigator on the study. He said the study’s goal is to investigate ways to make police more accountable to the communities they serve.

“It includes an intervention combined with best of procedural justice practices, with utilization of body-worn-camera footage to increase the transparency and accountability of police agencies,” Sahin said. “We believe that this approach will improve police practices, especially during traffic stops.”

The project, done in conjunction with the Atlantic City and Pleasantville police departments, will release body-camera video of traffic stops and have drivers and pedestrians provided with evidence of why police conduct traffic stops at certain locations. Researchers will then interview drivers and pedestrians who were stopped and ask them to complete a 31-question survey on paper or online to evaluate the interaction.

Sahin said the study would be conducted as a randomized control trial. A total of 1,100 drivers or pedestrians in Atlantic City and Pleasantville will be randomly assigned to the treatment group, in which they will undergo the enhanced procedural justice protocol and police will use the new interaction tactics. Another 900 drivers or pedestrians in Atlantic City and Pleasantville will undergo conventional police stops, without any new interventions.

The response of the two groups will be compared to evaluate the effect that the new procedures have on police-civilian relations.

“We believe that, with this new intervention, citizens will be better informed about traffic-enforcement practices, they will feel that the police make them part of the process, and will give them an opportunity to voice their opinions given their initial interaction,” Sahin said. “We anticipate that this protocol will increase compliance, citizen satisfaction, and perceptions of trust and confidence in the police department.”

James Sarkos, the interim officer-in-charge of the Atlantic City Police Department, said he was “excited” about the opportunity to work with Stockton and partake in the study. He noted the Atlantic City Police Department has a preexisting partnership with the university to train every Atlantic City police officer in the new, best practices of procedural justice.

“We believe very strongly about procedural justice in the Atlantic City Police Department,” Sarkos said. “We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of procedural justice, and we feel very strongly that this grant is going to prove, scientifically validate, how successful procedural justice is at improving police-community relationships and improving trust.”

Procedural justice is the utilization of police procedures during minor police-civilian interactions to improve public trust in law enforcement.

Sahin has previous experience working with the Atlantic City and Pleasantville police departments, where he has helped organize training on procedural justice. He also worked for the Turkish National Police for 13 years, and has published research about the use of procedural justice in Turkey.

Four of the seven professors listed as grant participants are criminal justice professors or instructors from Stockton, including Sahin. The team also includes Marissa Levy, the dean of the Stockton University School of Behavioral Sciences; Northwestern University Assistant Professor of Linguistics Rob Voigt; and Joel Caplan, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

Levy said the partnership with Voigt from Northwestern and Caplan from Rutgers was crucial in helping advance the goals of the study and “making sure that we have the best eyes and ears to help our community partners and to bring procedural-justice practices here to Atlantic County and to others.”

Pleasantville Police Chief Sean Riggins shared Levy’s enthusiasm for the team assembled for the study. Riggins said he was “struck” by the people his department had the opportunity to collaborate with, and believed the study would strengthen police-community relations in Pleasantville.

“I’m struck by the caliber of the people that are involved in this project,” Riggins said. “I think it’s going to be really transformative for law enforcement moving forward, and we’re just really happy to be a part of it.”

The planned Stockton study will take place against the backdrop of a nationwide movement protesting police brutality in the United States, particularly against Black men. The murder of George Floyd last year sparked protests that lasted through much of 2020, and created a new sense of urgency around achieving police reform.

Some cities have already implemented new, drastic reforms around police traffic stops. Philadelphia passed a law in October banning police from conducting stops over certain, trivial traffic offenses. The law was written to reduce racial discrimination in police stops.

Caplan, of Rutgers, mentioned the Stockton study was delving into “a very important topic at an important time in our lives and in the world.”

Sarkos agreed with Caplan’s assessment, saying this police reform study “could not be more important and timely than right now here in our country.”

The study, which will focus on a total of 2,000 traffic stops, will take place over an 18-month period expected to begin in the summer of 2022.

Contact Chris Doyle


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