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Faith leaders want community-led solutions, not police-led responses

Updated: May 31, 2023

By Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones, Rev.Weldon McWilliams IV, Rev. John Taylor

Three faith leaders say the state’s most vulnerable communities need community-led solutions free from police involvement or interference. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres | Governor's Office)

The scripture says that to administer “true justice,” we must show mercy and compassion to one another. Justice is not upheld when we oppress those who are unwell, poor, or marginalized. Justice is not upheld when we meet their cries for help with force and violence.

As faith leaders in Newark, Paterson, and Trenton, we are compelled to express our collective support for Assembly bill 5326, which would establish a community-led crisis response teams pilot program targeted to cities like ours. A5326 is a critical step in ensuring the health, wellness, and safety of some of this state’s most vulnerable communities.

Police violence against Black residents in New Jersey is acute. The evidence is clear that Black communities (in contrast to many white communities) live in legitimate fear of experiencing harm by the police. New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in the country. Black communities are overpoliced, overincarcerated, and disproportionately impacted by police misconduct. We are killed and subjected to the use of force by police at significantly higher rates than our white counterparts, as evidenced by the cases of Jameek Lowery, Khalif Cooper, Jujuan Henderson, retired U.S. Army Major Gulia Dale III, Hasani Best, and Najee Seabrooks.

The best solution to this problem rests in community-led alternative response teams free from police involvement or interference. Nationwide, we are witnessing the rise of community-led response teams as an alternative to police responses for nonviolent, substance use, and behavioral and mental health calls. Community-led teams such as Newark Community Street Team, Trenton Restorative Street Team, and the Paterson Healing Collective follow the models seen in Cahoots in Eugene and Star in Denver. All rely heavily on highly trained professionals other than police and have proven to be an incredibly effective tool in violence interruption as well as limiting unnecessary and harmful interactions between police and communities of color.

In recent years, we have seen the state attempt to respond to the issue of police violence with programs such as Arrive Together and the establishment of the 988 suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline and mobile units, both of which lack the critical “community-led” component.

Black communities are not calling for the co-responder model. Our communities understand that the very presence of law enforcement at these highly charged and sensitive scenes only serves to further heighten tensions. The social workers that often report to the scene are representative of structurally racist systems that meet those in need of aid, compassion, and resources with contempt and harm. Many lack the contextual understanding and culturally responsive methods that are necessary to effectively respond to and treat Black communities.

Throughout this nation’s history, the Black church has been a critical voice in addressing this nation’s problem of racialized state-sanctioned violence while sounding the call for civil rights. The church has always been a central part of the Black community’s survival, serving not only as a place of worship but also as community support allowing space and opportunity for community members to solve disputes and activate their political consciousness into action. The role of faith leaders continues to be essential to the healing of our communities in the face of incredible violence and despair.

As faith leaders, we stand with and in support of these communities that are most vulnerable and most affected by police abuse and misconduct. We stood with them three years ago as they took to the streets in protest of injustice, and we stand with them now as they move their protests to policy change. We stand with our communities to demand police accountability and to abolish systemic racism. We are working with our communities to lament these injustices, to prophetically demand meaningful policy change, and to ultimately live in liberation.

For decades, the argument has been with crime in our communities: Why won’t the community stand up and take personal responsibility? This bill would provide the resources and support to communities who have been crying out to take responsibility and ownership of our own communities. So what reason would we have to keep people from having the resources to do just that?

The Rev. Dr. Timothy L. Adkins-Jones is the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, the Rev. Weldon McWilliams IV is the pastor of Christ Temple Baptist

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