BLESC: Tackling Racial Disparities

Let’s face it—it’s hard to discuss current events without forays into history, personal experiences, and of course, no small dose of opinion. What’s also hard is arriving at actionable and useful resolutions—yet we persist. Such was the motive of a small but determined group that recently braved a sunny afternoon to meet with city leaders at NJCU’s Gerrity Complex at an event organized by the group Blacks in Law Enforcement Servicing the Community (BLESC).

BLESC Founder and President, Anthony Smith (right) with Vice President, Rashaun Spence (left). Photo by Janine Ngai.

The founder and president of BLESC is Anthony Smith, who has been a Corrections Officer for 18 years. He said there were at least two things he hoped for in creating the event. “We want to show that as Black law enforcement, we of course understand what’s going on everywhere, so we want to step out of the uniform as Black [people], who also have Black children—especially Black sons–to say we have a problem that has to be acknowledged. Also, we wanted to come together and see if we can come up with a solution to work in the departments and try to basically show that we care about our community. We want to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.”

In the initial panel of police, sheriffs and prosecutors from Hudson, Bergen and Atlantic counties drew questions about the use of force, abuse of authority, policy, hiring, training of officers, and the small number of Black people in executive positions in law enforcement. Smith said he had been in talks with Mayor Fulop regarding training, because “when it comes to special training it needs to come from us [BLESC] because we are the community.

JC Superintendent, Franklin Walker (center), Lincoln HS Principal, Chris Gadsden (right) and Jersey City Freeholder, Bill O’dea (left). Photo by Janine Ngai.

“I’ll be honest, the training we’re talking about now was non-existent back then. We know in law enforcement the training needs to change because when you’re in the police academy, you are degraded because they want you to have a stronger chin. So when someone is saying things to you and degrading you, you keep still your calm, so that works. As far as diversity training, no. That is something they do not have at all and something we need to work on, 100 percent.”

Later panels included discussions on education, health, economic development and political empowerment. Jersey City Superintendent Franklin Walker also voiced a need for change when asked if schools should play a role in dealing with trauma children may experience. “We can no longer act the way we did in the past. It’s really about identifying and personalizing the learning; every child needs something but they all don’t need the same thing.”

BLESC event practicing social distancing. Photo by Janine Ngai.

BLESC includes police, firefighters, probation officers, Office of Emergency Management (OEM), sheriffs and first responders from Hudson County, Jersey City, the state, as well as civilians. “We need to work on a lot of things, and basic training is just the start, but we need to change the whole system all around,” Smith emphasized. “If you see from the [law enforcement] panel, we really don’t have any say-so anywhere. If you look at Bayonne, Jersey City, or Union City, there are no Black individuals who control anything. We need to be ranking, we need to have a voice in that community. If that means more training then so be it.”

So they persist.