How a police force with a reputation for violence is turning around

Bloomfield police were caught on camera beating a handcuffed African-American suspect after pulling him over on the parkway in 2012. It’s damning video evidence that cost the town a $1.6 million settlement and sent two cops to prison.

“And I watched the way the cops acted and what they did, and I said these are guys that just have no fear of getting in trouble,” said Bloomfield Public Safety Director Sam DeMaio.

DeMaio, who left Newark’s police department to lead Bloomfield’s department in 2014, recalls watching the now-notorious video, and ordering dramatic changes.

“No supervisor ever responded to that scene. Now there’s policies in place here that a supervisor will respond and has to respond. Any time an officer wants to perform a search of a vehicle, before he can do so, a supervisor has to go to that scene and approve it. They can’t just haphazardly start ripping through people’s cars because they smell marijuana or whatever the case may be,” DeMaio said.

DeMaio says older officers resisted those reforms and others, like logging the race of suspects stopped by police. The 125-member force lost 47 cops over his first 18 months.

“Pretty much everyone that could retire, retired. Everybody was so used to the old way that nobody wanted to switch to the new way,” he said. “But it was a great thing because what it allowed me to do was promote up young people who were hungry for change, people that wanted this to be a professional department.”

That includes a new internal affairs unit and a half-million dollars worth of new cameras, radios, and software that tracks use of force reports which get reviewed daily.

“So if something happens that night, I look at it in the morning. If I feel there’s something bad, then I go directly to the director,” said Lt. Thomas Icolari, division commander of internal affairs for the Bloomfield Police Department.

A use of force survey painstakingly assembled by NJ Advance Media shows out of 468 departments, Bloomfield Police ranked 70th in use of force from 2012 to 2016. That year it logged 83 complaints. So far this year there have been 28. But the state attorney general has ordered a complete overhaul of New Jersey’s use of force data collection system.

“I would guarantee there’s dozens of departments throughout the state that are doing them sporadically or not doing them at all,” DeMaio said.

DeMaio gives his department an ‘A’ for the progress that it’s made. He says the state needs a standardized system to report use of force.