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New Jersey town’s anti-Kaepernick counterprotest raises alarm with black police chiefs’ group

Mounted officers and a helicopter flyover at a high school football game.

Police officer salute the flag before an NFL game on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Margot
Police officer salute the flag before an NFL game on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Margot

A police department’s attempt to counter protests of police violence at sporting events went awry Friday in northern New Jersey after the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives raised alarms.

The event’s focus was supposed to be officer Angel Padilla, who was wounded by Ahmad Kahn Rahami during the shootout that precipitated his arrest for planting amateur explosives in Manhattan in September. The ceremony featured a short parade with mounted officers, a fife and drum corps, a flyover from a New Jersey State Police helicopter, and a presentation recognizing Padilla’s role in capturing the terror suspect.

But Middletown Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger, who organized the ceremony before a game between Middletown South and Toms River North, took the focus off of Padilla’s heroism, prior to the event honoring him.

“It’s OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform,” Dollinger said to the Asbury Park Press on Friday. “It’s another thing to not stand up for the national anthem.”

The remarks gave the impression that Friday’s celebration was in part intended as counter-programming to the wave of protests calling out police violence toward black people, protests which have spread from professional sports to student athletes since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the song in August.

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Dollinger’s plan put him at odds with Eugene Stewart, president of the area chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“Sworn law enforcement officers undertake an oath swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Stewart said in a release. Uniformed officers counter-protesting Kaepernick “contradicts that constitutional oath, and it’s inappropriate for a State Police helicopter and other taxpayer-funded state resources to support this event.”

Stewart and an area NAACP leader also signed on to a letter from the state ACLU chapter criticizing Dollinger’s escapades.

“As initially described, the event appeared to honor police officers, veterans, service members, and first responders. According to press reports, however, the event is being used to intimidate and ostracize people who express their views about systemic racism and social justice,” the group wrote. “Please know that no students — including football players — can be required to participate in the event or stand for the national anthem.”

Dollinger later said his words had been “twisted.” But prior to the game and ceremony, he was explicit about his intentions to counter-protest “what he says are the disrespectful actions of [Kaepernick] and other professional athletes,” the Asbury Park Press reported.

Friday’s controversy is the latest illustration of how rocky the road towards police reform will be for supervisors and officers who view criticism as disrespect — and who, in many cases, harbor a tendency to punish any disrespect or back-talk from the citizens they serve.

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But protesting the broader history of police agencies abusing and killing black people all around the country is not incompatible with support for officers who protect the public.

Players with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx demonstrated as much after a pair of high-profile police killings and the fatal ambush of officers and protesters by a lone gunman in Dallas. During pregame warmups, players wore T-shirts emblazoned with both “Black Lives Matter” and the emblem of the Dallas Police Department.

Local officers who work security at Lynx games responded by walking off the job.