“Enlightening and disheartening at the same time,” says Sheilah Coley summing up her first year as director of the City of Trenton Police Department.
The enlightening was discovering “how far behind we are” regarding technology and staffing. The disheartening was that the department isn’t catching up.
One of the problems, Coley, 57, says during a recent interview at police headquarters at 225 North Clinton Avenue, is Trenton’s status as a recipient of the State of New Jersey’s Department of Community Affair’s Transitional Aid Program.
The program provides state support for economically distressed communities.
“The biggest challenge is the DCA approvals, which delay the process so you can’t move as quickly as possible,” says Coley, who has been in law enforcement since 1989.
The former chief of the Newark Police Department (2011-2014) and public safety director for East Orange (2015-2018) says it also hinders her ability to hire or to purchase at the right moment.
“If I need to do something, I can’t wait three weeks for approval” to address an immediate need, she says.
Officially becoming Trenton’s police director in May, 2019, Coley says she took the $131,844 per year job in order to implement successful practices that helped Newark and East Orange and help change the capital’s city future.
Although a preliminary needs assessment report to kick start her first full year as director of the $50 million department was delivered to the city at the start of the year, her efforts have been hampered by the pandemic and its effect on city operations.
Other situations affecting Coley’s tenure include criticism of her actions during the May 31 riots that followed two days of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and in which Trenton police participated.
A video recording Coley seemingly telling a Trenton police unit to do nothing rather than address a group of looters became a lightning rod for critics who called for her to resign.
Coley responded publicly to the criticism at a July 14 Latino Symposium at Trenton City Hall.
She told the approximately 50 attendees she stopped the unit because information was unclear and unit members were not trained for crowd dispersal. She said participating auxiliary units from the region were trained and present.
“I didn’t tell (the Trenton police unit) not to do anything. (I meant), ‘Let me go see what’s going on, and then I will tell you what to do next.’ Because that’s what leaders do. I will not send them where I won’t go.”
She also told the audience, “I will not be stepping down. Let’s be clear about that.”
Coley also made other headlines in July when she threatened to sue the Trenton City Council for defamation after Councilman George Muschal labeled one of her personnel actions gender and race motivated.
Despite the friction, Coley, who still lives in Essex County, remains focused on improving Trenton through Community Policing.
She says it is the only practice that makes sense when “people are feeling they are over policed,” and says the approach involves having police on the street and developing dialogue with community members in order to learn what citizens expect and if those expectations are manageable.
The practice also calls for building community partnerships and trust. Yet, for now, she says, “It is a work in progress.”
Part of that work has been to pinpoint five crime hotspots and have police officers walk the streets. “The officers are on the same beat and build trust and recognition,” Coley says.
However there are other obstacles. National studies show that members of the various Latino communities can be leery of the police because of immigration-related fears that were stoked by President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, threats to sanctuary cities such as Trenton, and fears of deportation.
Coley says Latinos need not worry about Trenton police in relationship to immigration. “It has been a standard within the State of New Jersey to not ask about documentation. We look at people as victims. We respond, ‘How can we help you?’”
She also is looking for ways to show Trenton Latino community members that the police are different here than in some of their home countries where police are habitually brutal.
Coley says programs to build trust with Trenton youth have also been started.
While newspaper reports show that she developed projects in Newark that gave youths opportunities to keep them from joining gangs, she says her first year in Trenton included gathering information before launching any youth engagement programs.
Although the coronavirus has affected such initiatives, she says the department’s community affairs division is working with youth service investigators in each ward to identify youths who need attention.
Progress for community partnership is also dampened by a popular culture that routinely depicts evil and corrupt cops.
Coley says the idea of bad cops “is nothing new” and has been there since the beginning of policing.
It is a point reinforced by an August 10 Trentonian article detailing a “confidential” police report of 30 Trenton police officers disciplined for alleged misconduct ranging from excessive force to falsifying criminal case records, drug and alcohol abuse, and unauthorized car pursuits.
“The way to fix it is for the good cops to keep coming to work,” Coley says. “There are bad apples on the news repeatedly. So that’s an image we learned through repetition. We identify bad apples and assess them with discipline and penalties, and termination. (But) the public does not believe we do that.”
That thought may connect to Coley’s last year as Newark director, a point when “excessive force allegations against city police officers have declined in each of the past four years, falling from 90 in 2010 to last year’s 27, records show,” as noted by NJ Advanced Media.
Talking about policing as a profession, Coley says, years ago “every kid wanted to be a police officer or fire fighter. But they’re not as likely to sign up for the police, and that’s because of how the police are portrayed. I think we’re dealing with an image issue.”
Coley, however, sees policing as an opportunity, and her life shows it.
She was born in Brooklyn but at the age of four was an orphan who lived with various relatives and foster families until she realized law enforcement was a way to enter the middle class and build a better life.
According to a City of Trenton biography, “Coley joined the United States Air Force at age 17 and served for three years. She then went on to serve in the Newark Police Department for 25 years, holding each rank, including chief and director. She then went on to serve as public safety director of East Orange, overseeing police, fire, and OEM divisions. Coley earned her B.A. in criminal justice and her M.A. in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University.”
Declining to provide any personal information except that she hasn’t yet settled on a home in Trenton, Coley says that solving serious city problems — such as the street violence that has claimed 27 lives this year as of press time — is more complicated than the community fully understands.
“Everyone thinks that (crime control) begins and ends with the police department,” she says. “(But) we have the prosecutors’ office and the courts (that release habitual lawbreakers). None of those decisions are ours, but we shoulder the entire burden,” especially when citizens see the same people committing the same crimes day after day.
She says another problem is that in many communities — suburban to urban — people do “things on a daily basis and they don’t even consider they’re breaking the law.” But when they get a summons, they get angry, complain about the police, and say they are being treated unfairly.
“It’s a tough job,” she says. “It is a thankless job. We encourage and praise each other.”
Combined with the daily potential of violence and danger, it is not surprising the suicide and emotional problems within the ranks are mounting.
“They have all gone through resiliency training,” she says.
Admitting that she has no professional or financial need for serving as the Trenton director, Coley says, “This is an agency I think I can help, and if I help the agency I can help the city. If I’m given the tools I can move the agency forward. I think this department has been stagnant.
“I would like to stay and get this agency stable. East Orange is still using the strategies in place. You have to recognize when something is working and let it work.”
One thing that will help immediately is the positive response of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and Sheriff’s Department to Coley and Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s August request for additional law enforcement officers to be deployed in Trenton.
She also requested that Mercer County Police Academy double the number of new officers eligible for starting with the Trenton Police Department in the fall.
According to one news source, “In order to help investigate and deter future violent crimes, the city’s FY2020 budget includes $4.5 million to establish a real-time crime and intelligence center. This partnership between the Trenton Police Department, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and the N.J. State Police will assist Trenton police officers in gunfire detection, video surveillance, and gathering criminal intelligence. The project is expected to be completed within a year.”
Coley says, as she looks ahead, “I know it seems a little dismal and gray in the city. But I think if we all do our part the outcome will be wonderful for the City of Trenton and we will see crime reduction like we have never seen it before and growth in this city.”