When neighbors fume at each other and call 911, police in Pennsauken Township respond. When someone makes a noise complaint, officers respond. If residents call about a suspicious person — or even a possum in their backyard — officers respond.
“The police get called for pretty much everything,” said Chief John Coffey, whose department protects the Camden County community of 35,000 residents. “A mother will say: ‘My son doesn’t want to go to school. I want the police here,’ and we go.”
The calls add up in time, paperwork, and resources, but departments such as Pennsauken’s don’t see an alternative.
Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey wants to change that. It has proposed that an agency other than police respond to minor calls — ranging from disorderly conduct to trespassing to complaints about bad behavior — so that officers can devote resources to more serious calls.
Udi Ofer, the state ACLU’s executive director, said the idea requires creativity from municipal leaders.
This is how he sees it: A new agency of city employees is formed. These individuals don’t carry weapons and don’t have arrest powers. But they are authorized to respond to and resolve minor conflicts.
“The problem is, community residents have no one else to call right now” except the police, Ofer said.
In advocating for the move in its “Police Reform Blueprint,” released Aug. 25, the ACLU also said stops for minor offenses and conflicts can sometimes quickly veer into violence.
As an example, the civil rights group cited the controversial death of Eric Garner. The 43-year-old street vendor died in a choke hold by New York police in 2014 after they approached him for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Although not in the report, a police stop that year in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, also drew outcry after it turned lethal.
Two officers stopped a driver for allegedly running a stop sign and then retrieved a gun from the car’s glove compartment. One of the officers then fatally shot the passenger, 36-year-old Jerame Reid, who was trying to open the door but was not holding a weapon.
The ACLU’s report makes several recommendations, including requiring departments to release demographic data on car and pedestrian stops, giving the public access to police body-camera footage, and reducing the wide range of calls to which officers respond.
The ACLU report encourages state officials to adopt its recommendations. The state Attorney General’s Office, which oversees policing practices, declined to comment on it last week.
Coffey says his force of 74 officers would welcome “any help we could possibly get” on the 100,000-plus calls they are projected to handle this year.
In a heated dispute between two people, for example, an officer may have to break away for another call, instead of spending an additional five to 10 minutes at that scene to reach a better resolution, he said.
“We really can’t spend the time and effort at some of these jobs that we would probably like to,” Coffey said.
The department responds mostly to burglar alarms and reports of suspicious individuals and disorderly conduct, and also enforces against offenses such as trespassing and marijuana possession.
Police in New Jersey arrest people for marijuana possession more than any other crime, according to the ACLU. In 2013, possessing small amounts of the drug led to nearly 25,000 arrests — the most in 20 years — across the state.
Coffey said state law requires that an officer bring someone found with a small amount of marijuana to the police station to be fingerprinted and photographed. That eventually creates hours of paperwork, he said.
“It would make it a lot easier if we could just write out a ticket,” he said.
The ACLU’s report advocates decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying such arrests are unnecessary and build distrust between communities and police.
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