Enthusiastic applause punctuated the remarks of black and white Bordentown Township residents alike when they spoke against racism Wednesday night at an emotional town hall meeting, held two months after their former police chief captured national attention by being charged with hate crimes by federal authorities.
A diverse group of more than 120 residents attended the meeting to share stories and urge changes during a town hall organized to help heal the small community, which was riven by the alleged racist behavior of former Chief Frank Nucera Jr.
“I have so many emotions running through me,” said Craig Morris, an African American who has lived in the township for 12 years.
“I found this town to be great,” he said, his voice booming. “But when I read the words that this man said, I became extremely concerned. I have a 14-year-old son, and I know what it is like to be stopped as a black man.”
Bob Moore, a 50-year resident, said he loves his town and always had a cordial relationship with Nucera. But after Nucera became chief in 2006, Moore said, he started getting “harassed” when he was out jogging. Moore said he complained to Nucera and it stopped, but he was disturbed later to hear the remarks Nucera allegedly said about minorities.
Morris urged township officials to create an advisory committee to bring the culture change he said is needed in the police department. “If any other officers are in there with those beliefs, they need to be moved out, because we can’t have them in there … We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of building of trust,” he said.
Acting Township Police Chief Brian Pesce said he has instituted many changes since he was appointed in February, after Nucera resigned. “I immediately held a department-wide meeting with all of our officers to change our mindset from a warrior mindset to a guardian mindset,” he said.
A guardian, he said is “someone who deescalates situations” and earns compliance.
Pesce has instituted sensitivity training and plans to begin cultural diversity sensitivity training. His remarks were met with enthusiasm and several residents praised him as someone who has already turned things around.
Nucera, 60, is charged with a pattern of racist comments and actions, including slamming the head of an African American teen into a metal door frame and comparing blacks to members of ISIS deserving of death by firing squad. In remarks that authorities said were secretly recorded by an officer in the police department, Nucera said: “They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it.”
One of the burning questions at the meeting was how Nucera managed to stay under the radar during his 34 years on the force and was able to rise through the ranks. Nucera, who also was administrator of the community of 13,000, abruptly resigned both posts last January after questioning by the FBI. Public records show he now receives an annual pension of $105,992.
When announcing the meeting, Mayor Stephen Benowicz said “we would like to hear from our community” and promised an “honest, open and positive discussion on how we collectively can move forward.”
Benowicz and James E. Lynch Jr., mayor of Bordentown City, had organized a panel to take questions from the public.
“It’s the right thing to do, transparency and to be open,” Benowicz said. Also on the panel were Pesce and Bordentown City Police Chief Fred Miller. The two municipalities provide mutual assistance on police and fire calls and send their children to a regional school.
Nucera, who did not attend the town hall, pleaded not guilty last month. His lawyer, Rocco Cipparone, said the former chief had a good record and he has questioned the motives of the unnamed police officer who recorded him.
But residents at the meeting vigorously praised the officer who recorded Nucera’s remarks.
Dan Preston, 63, of Bordentown City, said he heard there were two officers who came forward and they should be congratulated. Again, there was applause. But Preston’s attempt to learn who these officers was rebuffed by township officials, who said they are not permitted to speak about the legal case against Nucera or about personnel matters.
Nucera is accused of shoving a handcuffed suspect and pushing his head into the door frame at the top of a stairwell at the Ramada hotel on Sept. 1, 2016, while he was being escorted to a police cruiser for allegedly failing to pay for his room. Timothy Stroye of Trenton said in an interview that he had not been resisting arrest when he was struck from behind and momentarily “blacked out.”
Authorities have also said Nucera had instructed officers to bring canines to the schools and apartment buildings where minorities attended and lived, to intimidate them.
If convicted, Nucera could face up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. No trial date has been set.