By Michael Battista
The topic of polices’ use of force is one that has sparked intense debates around the country in recent months. At the College, students had a chance to discuss the issue in an open forum on Wednesday, Feb. 24, in the Education Building.
Acting Mercer County Prosecutor and former College adjunct professor Angelo J. Onofri led the presentation and discussion. The hour-long event covered police cases in which deadly force was used, as well as the process by which they are investigated.
“It’s been in the headlines nationally for quite some time now and I would say it’s a big social issue,” senior criminology major Andrew Tesori said. “And obviously social issues are big on college campuses.”
Onofri believes that the recent national events are not the only reason police force is gathering more attention.
“I think there (are) other factors,” he said. “I do think that some of the more recent cases that were captured on video started saying to people, ‘Hey, were the police lying to us to begin with?’ But I also think that a lot of it has to do with increased technology.
“Also, you have a lot of the television programs that are using these cutting edge technologies,” he added. “And because of that, I think that people are demanding more from police officers and they’re holding them to a higher expectation than I would say happened a few years ago.”
Over the past few years, the news has been dominated by stories of police shootings and have been met with occasionally violent backlash from outraged citizens. Onofri explained that New Jersey has been working on this issue for some time.
“New Jersey has been on the forefront of this issue,” he said. Onofri added that the State Legislature has passed two directives in the past 11 years that expand how police shootings are investigated.
The process, as explained by Onofri in his presentation, was drafted and developed in collaboration with multiple law enforcement agencies and community leaders, including the New Jersey State Police and the NAACP. The process follows principles such as having comprehensive, rigorous, impartial investigations and having mandatory reviews of all actual and potential conflicts of interest, according to Onofri’s presentation.
Depending on who is involved with the shooting, the cases are reviewed under one of two designators. Officer-Involved Shooting (OIS) handles any use of force by a municipal police office while Shooting Response Team (SRT) deals with any incidents concerning a county level or state level officer.
Onofri stressed the fact that with these systems in place, each case is now reviewed independently — away from the police department where the officer is from — in order to prevent any kind of conflict of interest.
The future of police investigations was also discussed in regard to the prospect and implication of body cameras for officers, in order to garner more information about incidents that take place.
Freshman criminology major Sophia Grigolo thinks advancements like these should be talked about far more often.
“I didn’t know that a lot of departments in the county are (going to) get body-worn cameras,” she said. “I think that’s something that should be public knowledge because of all the issues recently.”
Onofri said that while police continue to make progressive changes, getting back the support of the public is another task completely.
“Statewide, you are seeing (distrust) with juries,” Onofri said. “Years ago, the best case you could have was one with a police officer. Officer credibility is being tested. The judges (have) to make sure that there are no biases for or against the officer.”
Some factors that seem to attribute to this are the recent issues dealing with the police violence and what Onofri calls the “CSI effect.” This is a public effect in which television shows, such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” or “NCIS,” exaggerate the portrayal of forensic science, leading to a public that wants scientific evidence in cases, including fingerprints, DNA and surveillance footage.
Grigolo, who comes from a family of police officers, thinks that she would side with the police if the case is in their favor.
“I think a lot of it is case by case, but I do tend to lean toward the cop’s side of things,” she said. “But that’s not to say that if they’re in the wrong I still think that they’re right… I definitely understand their side because a lot of times, the public doesn’t understand the heat of the moment and the issues that cops face is protecting their own lives and protecting civilians around them. I think I have somewhat an understanding of that.”