Rev. Owens on police review commission: ‘We’re not here to find dirt on police department’

Aug. 13, 2020: Rev. Ronald Owens traces his history in Metuchen back to 1900, when his great-grandfather moved to the borough from Virginia to work as caretaker of the cemetery at the First Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Owens is senior pastor at New Hope Baptist Church of Metuchen. He also has served as chaplain to the Metuchen Police Department for 17 years. It is this resume Rev. Owens cites when he talks about his unique responsibility as head of a commission tasked by Mayor Jonathan Busch to review the police department’s use of force policies.

“There’s not much that Metuchen’s police department has to reform, if anything,” Owens told me in a recent interview. “It’s just that there’s some things that could make it more user-friendly to the community.

“We’re not here to find dirt on the police department,” Owens stressed.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck sparked nationwide protests. Floyd and other deaths such as Breonna Taylor has spurred hard questions about how much force is appropriate, especially when it comes to unarmed people.

Busch announced in June that he had signed the “Mayor’s Pledge” from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s Foundation. The pledge commits signers to review use of force policies, engage the community by including a range of perspectives as part of the review, make the findings public while seeking feedback and ultimately, reform use of force policies.

Busch also named the members of the commission, to be led by Rev. Owens.

Commission members are: David Alston, retired captain with the New Jersey State Police; Alan Johnson, software engineer manager with Better.com; Hazel-Anne M. Johnson, associate teaching professor at Rutgers in the Department of Human Resource Management; Chuck Lopez, music teacher with Edison School District; Deborah Mohammed-Spigner, assistant professor in the College of Business and Public Management and School of Criminal Justice and Public Administration at Kean University; Rabbi Eric Rosin of Neve Shalom; and Bobbie Theivakumaran, managing director with Citi.

Busch and Owens have both said Metuchen police department ranks low in arrests by force compared to the rest of the state.

revowens

Rev. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church

According to Force Report compiled by NJ Advance Media, Metuchen police reported 47 uses of force from 2012 to 2016, a lower rate than 375 police departments (out of 468) around the state. (Use of force includes any time an officer used force during an arrest and filled out a use-of-force form).

During this time frame, the subjects of force arrests were 62.1 percent white, 17.2 percent black, 6.9 percent Hispanic and 10.3 percent Asian, according to the database.

A weapon was fired twice during the time period, with two incidents in 2013 and 2014 listed as “deadly” force. For both officers who used “deadly” force, the number of subjects injured is listed as zero. Read more here.

The goal for Metuchen police will likely focus more on enhancing its exposure to the community, Owens said. One idea would be to designate an officer to focus on public relations. The officer “would do certain police appearances … in schools, talking about safety, security, all the things that our police department feels are important to know,” Owens said.

The commission will also consider ways to provide more access to counseling for individuals under “domestic stress,” Owens said. As chaplain with the police department, Owens said he travels with officers to scenes of domestic violence or emotional distress. “I’m in the car with police officers on the way to those sites, to bring comfort,” he said. “So I’m talking as someone who carries a badge.”

The commission answers to the mayor and Borough Council. Owens said he would like the commission to make some of its findings public so the community can respond.

 

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