By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGTSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the
side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
An intriguing email from the Montclair Police Department recently hit my inbox, an invitation to apply for the town’s 2020 Citizen Police Academy (CPA). Sign up to receive Montclair alerts and newsletters and you, too, will receive such an invite. Grow up with a dad who was a cop, like I did, and you might even geek out when it arrives.
Officer Travis Davis of the Montclair Police Department Community Service Unit responded right away when I reached out to learn more, explaining the CPA is a free, nine-week course that teaches community members about a range of topics including police training, use of force, narcotics investigations, and domestic violence. Police departments from Montclair, Bloomfield, Verona, East Orange, and Glen Ridge jointly sponsor the CPA, and residents of those towns get first dibs on the 65 seats available.
Across the country police departments host local Citizen Police Academies as a way to improve relationships, and strengthen trust and respect between police officers and the people they serve. One officer from another state described them as a way to increase community empathy and sympathy for officers by humanizing them.
Unless you have lived with a police officer, you may not know that most officers never fire their guns, or that some have a dope moonwalk — subjects that may (or may not) be addressed in the program curriculum.
The Montclair Police Department’s commitment to community relations is strong. In 2017 New Jersey’s Attorney General even honored our community policing unit for its success. As a Montclair parent and resident I’ve seen the department’s commitment to racial equity on display at our schools and in our streets.
But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we celebrate this weekend, would not have been able to participate.
Though they vary from department to department, when you apply to participate in a CPA, police departments check whether you’ve had contact with the police, been arrested, or have any type of criminal conviction. These application requirements send a clear message to people with criminal histories — you are not welcome. King would not have cleared a background check. Nationally, between 70 million and 100 million — or as many as one in three Americans — have some type of criminal record.
The Montclair Police Department’s CPA application informs people that “[a] background check will be conducted on all applicants and access may be denied to those with a criminal arrest record.” To be eligible, you must have no felony convictions (ever) and no misdemeanor convictions within the last three years.
While the MPD police chief may waive or modify any of the participation requirements, the background check remains a hurdle someone with a record may not want to bound over.
I became interested in checking out other police departments, and discovered some are even more restrictive.
The police department in Fairfax County, Va., says it’s looking for CPA applicants “from different ethnicities, professions, cultural backgrounds, orientations, age groups, and communities … in order to enrich class discussions and strengthen community relationships.”
But FCPD’s Kumbaya becomes a Kumbay-bye when it comes to people with a history. FCPD, like many other departments, requires applicants to “clear a review of your criminal record and police contact history prior to acceptance.”
Montclair’s CPA experience should be accessible to everyone in our community with a good faith interest in police-community relations. Period. Who better to complement a police officer’s discussion of the arrest process than someone who has actually felt handcuffs grip their wrists?
If Montclairites who’ve had an encounter with the justice system — including a negative one — are willing to devote nine weeks to improving police-community relations, I’m all for it.