“Challenges.” “Events.” “Issues.” “Incident.”
That is how Bordentown Township officials referred to the federal investigation that led to the arrest of former police chief and township administrator Frank Nucera during a community forum held Jan. 17 at the Bordentown Performing Arts Center at the high school.
Despite repeated attempts by officials to say they’ve moved forward from the allegations against Nucera—including hate crime assault and deprivation of civil rights—residents made their outrage known.
Around 150 township and city residents attended the discussion, promoted by the township as a way to heal and move forward from “recent events.” Township administrator Michael Theokas moderated, while township Mayor Stephen Benowitz, city mayor Jim Lynch, township chief of police Brian Pesce and city chief of police Fred Miller sat on a panel and responded to residents’ comments and questions.
From the start, Theokas said they were legally precluded from discussing specifics of the case, a refrain repeated frequently throughout the evening.
“We’ve been advised that those events that brought us here tonight, because it’s an ongoing legal matter, we can’t address current or former personnel,” he said. “The point is, we’re moving forward. We’re trying not to look back. We’re moving forward. I’m going to ask to please keep your comments focused on our community and what we need to do to improve our community.”
Almost immediately, though, residents made it clear that there was no moving on without addressing Nucera’s alleged civil rights violations.
The former chief retired in January while he was under FBI investigation after Bordentown Township police officers secretly and legally recorded him making anti-black comments and using racial slurs. Officers also reported his use of excessive force against then-18-year-old Timothy Stroye in a September 2016 incident.
“I don’t know that we should dwell on the past, but we really do need to thoroughly understand that past so that we can have an honest reckoning with how we got to this point before we can move forward,” resident Dan Preston said. “I know some of that will be through a legal case, but much of it will be looking at each other and ourselves and honestly asking how such a horrible man rose to a position of power. I think that’s still a very serious, unanswered question. It’s a complicated question.”
Theokas again mentioned the “ongoing matter,” which Preston challenged.
“It’s a bigger story than a legal case,” Preston said. “It’s a whole environment in the community, which is not constrained by legal particulars.”
Many speakers shared Preston’s concerns—how did a man accused of such vile things reach two of the township’s top positions, and how did his behavior go unnoticed over a 30-year career with the township?
“We have to hold the elected officers accountable for what happened in Bordentown Township,” said Curtis Robinson, a resident since 2006. “They had to know what was going on. They had to know what was going on in the township for how long the chief was here. I’ve got 10 years of law enforcement myself in South Carolina, and I worked my way up from corrections officer to police deputy sheriff. We had things in place to hold each other accountable. In this situation, I think we need to start holding our elected officers accountable for what happens in Bordentown.”
School board member Jan Nielsen’s friends of color have said to her, ‘I can’t go into Bordentown City. I’ll meet you someplace else.’
Eric Daniels’s friends warned him about moving to Bordentown.
“I’m probably one of the few people here that looks like me who hasn’t been pulled over by the police in this town,” he said. Daniels is black.
The township police department has a well-known reputation for racially profiling people of color, and Daniels wasn’t the only black resident at the forum to note that. A handful of residents shared that their decisions to move to Bordentown were questioned, or that they have friends of color who are hesitant to visit because they don’t want to risk getting pulled over or stopped while walking down the street.
“It just seems difficult to comprehend that you have an individual who could rise to that level, and no one would be aware of his viewpoints about his interactions with people of color,” Daniels said. “You hear terms like systemic racism or institutional racism and think that these are made up things, and then you have a scenario like this where it becomes a reality.”
Bob Moore, a 50-year township resident, said he’s had a good life in Bordentown and congratulated the officers who spoke up. On a one-on-one basis, he said, he had no personal issues with Nucera. Policy-wise was a different story.
Moore, 84, was an active runner when Nucera became chief. The former track coach ran through the Bossert neighborhood, up and down Ward Avenue, near Route 130.
“I never had a problem,” Moore said. “When he became chief, I was being stopped constantly by the township police force and questioned as to where I lived and what I was doing. The questions always seemed to be the same. ‘Hi, how you doing, what are you doing, are you from around here?’”
He recalled one instance where an officer watched him run to the corner of Ward Avenue. The officer approached Moore and said that someone had called the police complaining that Moore was hitchhiking. Moore, though, was in that spot for less than two minutes. And the officer knew that.
After that, he went to talk to Nucera.
“He said his officers were being proactive,” Moore said. “I asked him what that meant. He said they were trying to identify crime before it happened, and I said, ‘What does that have to do with me?’ He said, ‘We’re just trying to prevent crime before it happens.’”
Clarissa Murphy had a similar experience. Police officers have followed her while she was running, in exercise clothes, multiple times. Though she recalled a positive experience with one officer, for the most part, the incidents were demoralizing.
“It made me feel so insecure,” she said. “I’m doing the right thing. I’m paying taxes. I’m working. I’m going to school. I’m not doing anything wrong, and here I am in my own community, I’m feeling like I’m a bad guy. I’m a criminal. I’m just exercising.”
Terry Johnson, a city resident, also felt that she and her family have been profiled by police in town. Her husband, she said, constantly gets pulled over. But what happened to her teenage son seemed to stick with the crowd at the forum.
He was playing hide and seek one evening on the Clara Barton playground with a group of his friends—some black, some white. The police appeared and questioned the group, but not before separating the black children from the white children. Johnson’s son was eventually singled out and forced to lay facedown on the pavement, not allowed to use his phone or respond to multiple frantic texts and calls from his parents wanting to know where he was.
Once they learned where he was and found out how he was treated, she went right to Lynch and Miller. Johnson praised the way they dealt with the situation and the officer. She encouraged other residents to do the same—challenge your officials, she said. This is what they get paid to do.
Still, though, she says her children are afraid of the police.
“Back in the day, the police uniform represented, ‘Hey, they’ve got my back,’” she said. “For a black family, besides being afraid of your uniform, we’re afraid of your white skin, too. It’s a double dose that we’ve got to siphon out the two different things to distinguish which one is which. Are we going to be judged because we’re black?”
School board member Jan Nielsen said some of her friends who live out of town feel similarly. Her friends of color have said to her, “I can’t go into Bordentown City. I’ll meet you someplace else.”
“I want to know when one of my friends of color gets stopped on the corner and they’re never told why they’re stopped, what can I do?” she said.
“We have to earn their trust,” Lynch said. “We can sit up here and promise you something. You have to see it, and we have to earn that trust. Hopefully at some point in time, you’ll come to me and say I’ve earned your trust.”
“I’ll be patient,” Nielsen said.
‘It’s important for people of color to feel just like everybody else in this room.’
Many residents praised certain steps the police department has taken to ensure that Nucera’s attitude has been scrubbed out for good. Pesce received applause when he discussed his philosphy as chief.
“We were going to change from a warrior mindset to a guardian mindset,” he said. “For those who don’t know what that means, I’ll try to describe it for you. A warrior mind is someone who escalates situations, who commands people and forces compliance. A guardian is someone who de-escalates, who communicates with people and who gains compliance. That is the new mindset of the Bordentown Township Police Department.”
He detailed different training actions he’s spearheaded—cultural sensitivity classes, de-escalation training—and other community outreach initiatives like playing kickball with high school students and “ticketing” children wearing their helmets for free ice cream.
But some wanted to hear more concrete plans that dealt specifically with racism and racist culture. City resident Blair Silver says she still sees people posting on Facebook whenever they see an unfamiliar person of color walking down the street, prompting calls to the police and an embarrassing stop for someone who has done nothing to warrant such treatment. That culture is part of what needs to end, she said.
“Community Day, that sounds awesome, but that’s not really cutting to the chase,” Silver said. “It’s not telling me what we’re going for. We have things in the city, Building Bridges, where we’re actually learning about each other’s cultures. Community Day, everyone’s coming just to have fun. I’ve reached out to the township. Nobody really said anything. Do you really want our input? [We need] more events that are going to fix the problem, not something like Community Day, or ‘Let’s go play basketball.’ It’s a bigger issue than a general Community Day.”
Silver even offered to help plan events or work toward other solutions.
“It’s important for people of color to feel just like everybody else in this room,” she said.
Murphy said she just hopes it’s not “business as usual” as 2018 gets underway.
“I have sat in many forums like this,” she said. “I’ve heard people say these things that you are saying with the same exact titles that you have sit in front of me and say what you are saying. What I see after that is the same thing. Business as usual. Nothing really changed. Town hall meetings, a couple officers say hello, but nothing really changed.
“The same is on the stage, so that means the sameness is going to continue, because the sameness is already here. Blair asked a wonderful question when she said, ‘What happens when someone calls the police on a young black man walking down the street and the police respond?’ What happens?”
City resident Diana Omolade said it starts with accountability and recognizing that everyone—whether they recognize it or not—has some kind or bias. It’s something she says she challenges her children to do every day.
“Until we acknowledge that we all start with some form of bias and are willing to acknowledge that truth within ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for what that really looks like, nothing is going to shift,” she said. “The first step is personal accountability, and the next step is how we hold others around us accountable.
“That’s the culture that you as leaders in this town will help influence, so when you think about making a change to police culture, it’s the casual conversations at the station, it’s the conversations that go on in the car, it’s how you talk about the person that you’ve pulled over or how you talk to each other and hold one another accountable and call them out even when they’re uncomfortable.”