PARAMUS, N.J. — Those blue lines being painted on roadways across Bergen County to honor police officers disturb the Rev. Gregory Jackson of Mount Olive Church in Hackensack.
“The blue line, to me, suggests that black lives don’t matter as much,” he said Wednesday as a panelist at “Race and Diversity in Suburbia: Police and Community Working Together.”
“If you’re going to have a line,” he added, “why don’t you just have a red line that represents the blood of anybody and everybody?”
It was just the kind of so-called “courageous conversation” the gathering was called to have.
They are the kinds of conversation designed to prevent here the clashes, violence, and deaths that have happened in suburban settings elsewhere in the nation.
“Race and Diversity” was organized by Bergen Community College Professor Phil Dolce with the aid of retired Fairfield Police Chief Frank DelVecchio.
It drew 200 law enforcement officers, community members, and students to Bergen Community campus in Paramus.
The “Communities Working Together” panel, which dominated the afternoon, featured Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino; Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal; and Cliffside Park Councilwoman Dana Martinotti, who also is principal of Cliffside Park School No. 5.
But two morning speakers set the stage for their discussion.
Bergen Community College Sociology Professor Maureen Ellis Davis spoke about the historical factors that helped create the suburbs.
These included the GI Bill, the creation of interstate highways, and the slowly changing attitudes toward immigrants who came in the 1880s and lived in urban slums.
These days, she said, immigrants head straight for the suburbs.
“Today there is more diversity in the suburbs than there is in the cities,” she said.
Then Noble Wray, former police chief in Madison, Wisconsin and current chief of the national Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative, spoke of the importance of “implicit bias” training for police officers.
Implicit biases often lie below the level of consciousness, he pointed out. He said they can results in “blink responses” that are reflexive and based on perceptions.
“I have implicit biases because I’m human,” Wray said. “I have them about another group and with my ‘in’ group.”
Wray told the story of living for a time with homeless people in Madison to get over his implicit biases of who they are.
The particularities of their lives – one was a concert violinist, another made $49,000 a year – helped him dispel his stereotypical ideas about the homeless.
Applying that idea to Bergen and running with it, the panelists discussed what could promote understanding and help prevent needless deaths here.
“The blue line is important because what gets lost is that people don’t realize we lose an officer or two a day (in the U.S.),” Grewal said. “That shouldn’t get lost in this debate.
“The answer is not to paint blue lines or black lines or red lines,” he added. “It’s to have a conversation on how we can address our implicit biases.”
Bergen County is committed to implicit bias training for officers that’s going to start at the police academy, Grewal explained. It’s also committed to having more dialogues.
Grewal, who is a Sikh, said many people perceive him as Muslim.
“That causes problems when I order something with bacon on it,” he quipped.
He said he took the job of acting prosecutor to change perceptions.
Martinotti spoke of how schools can help promote co-existence among diverse people by welcoming all families and teaching about different cultures.
“We also make it a point on the council and the board of education in Cliffside Park to have strong police-community relations,” Martinotti said.
For the second year in a row, she added, the borough earmarked the fourth Tuesday in September as First Responders Day, which is celebrated with a community-wide event.
Other ideas bandied about included: using more stun guns; using more body cameras, which tend to improve everyone’s behavior; and hiring a more diverse law enforcement labor force.
Saudino said any training that promotes empathy in officers or community members is a good thing.
“There’s a broad spectrum of what police and community relations are about,” he said. “It’s not just about racial differences. It could be gang awareness. Right now, our No. 1 concern in this county is the heroin epidemic.”
Rev. Jackson suggested that putting gang members into the simulator at the police academy could help them understand what officers see and feel in their line of duty.