Transparency is all Paul Pierson wants from the Hopewell Township Police Department. And he—along with hundreds of other Hopewell residents—took his case right to the building’s front door.

Pierson organized the Hopewell Township Rally for Police Accountability, held June 13 in the parking lot of the township municipal complex parking lot. He set up the peaceful protest in honor of his brother-in-law, Michael Sherman, who has been an officer with the HTPD for over 20 years.

Sherman, who is Black, sued the department for discrimination last year. He says he was the subject of racist jokes and remarks and overheard a number of racist comments during his time with the HTPD. Sherman repeatedly reported the harassment to high-ranking officers.

The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by two white men while out on a jog, and George Floyd, the Minnesota resident who was killed by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin he held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, spurred Pierson to speak up. He was also moved by the story of Christian Cooper, a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on him without reason.

“It’s those implied biases,” Pierson, a 15-year Air Force veteran, said. “I began to have these internal conflicts about everything I believed in for this country that I was willing to die for. It also started with some other conversations I was seeing on Facebook. I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ I needed to do something.”

So Pierson organized the rally and started to spread the word.

Hundreds of Hopewell residents gathered at the Hopewell Township Police Department June 13, 2020 to advocate for police accountability. The rally was organized by Paul Pierson, whose brother-in-law, Michael Sherman, filed a lawsuit against the department in 2017, citing racial discrimination and harrassment. Sherman is still on unpaid leave. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Fields.)

“It’s more than just protesting,” he said. “It’s not a march, but it’s a rally for accountability, for the department to take ownership of its actions. It starts at the top. When we talk about systemic racism and what’s happening, we believe it starts at the top when something is reported and still nothing is done. We need to take a stand and let people know that it’s happening in your backyard.”

Sherman’s suit has not been resolved, and he has not been allowed to get back to work, Pierson said. He has been on unpaid leave since the lawsuit was filed.

“He’s fit for duty,” he said. “Let him return to work. If there are no issues, then he’s ready to work. He’s a police officer. That’s what he’s done for the last 20 years. Clear it up, and let him move on.”

Pierson, a Bordentown resident, said Sherman has not ever heard from his employer—about the lawsuit or otherwise—in over a year.

“If there has been an investigation, we want to see it,” Pierson said. “There is video footage. Release that to the public. That is what we’re asking for—transparency from the department that polices the community.”

That is what Pierson hopes comes from the rally. He wants accountability from the system, from police officers all the way up to the chief of police and the mayor. He wants the results of any internal or external investigation related to Sherman’s lawsuit to be released.

And he wants the rot in the department to be cleared. The rally had already been planned when five Hopewell Township Police Department officers, as well as another employee, were suspended earlier this week after posting and reacting to anti-Black Lives Matter sentiments—one of which called supporters of the movement “terrorists”—on Facebook, the Trentonian first reported.

The Hopewell Township Committee says it learned of the post on June 8, and the employees were put on paid leave.

“The township has employed an independent investigator to review the civilian cases, and an independent hearing office will review the police department cases,” the committee said in the June 16 statement. “We are committed to ensuring this investigation is completed as soon as possible.”

In its statement, the township said it was unable to comment on any active legal matters.

Also in its statement, the Hopewell Township Committee invited public comments at its June 22 Zoom-based meeting, as well as at future meetings.

And residents answered that call. Over 90 people participated in the meeting, sharing testimonies about the way racism in the HTPD has impacted the community, said resident Olivia Allen.

Some spoke to Sherman’s character and called for him to be reinstated. Others said they hoped to see a complete restructuring of the HTPD. Many advocated for consistent bias training for officers and clear transparency from the department.

Allen also discussed an incident where a high school classmate threatened to burn down her house because she has a Black father. Others shared countless instances of similar stories.

“It was heartwrenching to hear those stories from our neighbors,” said Mayor Kristin McLaughlin. “I really don’t have a better word for it than ‘heartwrenching.’ As painful as it was to hear the sorrow and anger, I was also grateful that they took the time to let us hear their voices. We were elected to serve our neighbors. And it was very brave of them to come forward.”

Committewoman Julie Blake has been active as the body’s police liaison. She’s also heavily involved with a race and diversity group in town for several years, so she has seen some claims like these firsthand.

“We’re in the middle of a movement where people are comfortable sharing these stories publicly,” she said. “But privately, it’s not new.”

She’s heard residents share experiences of intimidation, discrimination, slurs, racist social media posts—it’s painful to hear those stories, she said, but she and McLaughlin added that they are happy to be in a position where they can make real changes.

She started a conversation with the HTPD about use of force in 2016 and went on to talk about immigration policies and practices with undocumented residents in 2017. Every year, Blake said, the committee has a discussion about policing policies that disproportinately affect people of color and how to keep them safe in police encounters. And now, the conversation has shifted to take a more proactive stance, she said.

“We need to build trust with the community,” Blake said. “We can create standards in the police department and articulate goals, and I don’t know if we’ve ever done that as a body. We’re planning, but it’s early in terms of what can be instituted.”

The township committee was set to meet via Zoom with Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri June 30, after this edition of the paper went to press. Residents were welcome to attend, and the meeting was set to be recorded and posted on the township website.

Pierson—and many others with connections to Hopewell—hopes to see change at an even deeper level.

“Ultimately, I believe that that police department needs to be rebuilt,” he said. “There is a problem in that department. Suspending the officers, that’s a start, but I believe if you’re the chief, if you’re the mayor, it starts with you. What happens from a leadership perspective? If they’re not going to say something, then what’s the problem? We need to continue to voice ourselves in a peaceful manner.”