A Black school board member in Essex County, New Jersey, is being asked to resign by a Black parents group after footage of a traffic stop on April 27 shows her swearing at a white police officer and calling the South Orange Village police chief a “skinhead.”
According to footage shared by NJ.com, South Orange School Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad is heard getting emotional with an officer who pulled her over for speeding.
After the officer approaches the vehicle, Lawson-Muhammad begins to cry and asks if she can allow one of her daughters who she’s driving to get out of the car and walk to school. She then expresses worry that her other daughter, who she says is at home, will be late to school, to which the officer says he’ll try and let her go as quickly as possible.
“I’m scared of cops because you guys hurt Black people,” Lawson-Muhammad then says to the office.
The officer then asks if he can call her an ambulance and tells her he thought she appeared to be having a panic attack, to which she tells him she doesn’t want that, and says the suggestion is “a fucking insult.”
The officer replies, “OK,” after asking if she has her driver’s license and insurance. When she tells him she can’t find her driver’s license, she hands him an expired insurance card and tells him she’s “freaked out right now.” He then tells her to sit tight, and goes back to his car to run her information.
When the officer returns to the car, Lawson-Muhammad is heard crying and on the phone with her husband. He once again asks her if she’s OK to drive, and she tells him she is.
The officer then explains that he gave her two tickets for speeding and failure to have updated insurance and tells her she has a mandatory court sentence. Lawson-Muhammad says her husband can show him an updated insurance card, but the officer says he can’t void the ticket now that it’s written.
Lawson-Muhammad then tells the officer she’ll “call Sheena…and your skinhead cop chief, too,” referencing South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and village Police Chief Kyle Kroll.
The cop again responds, “OK,” before telling her how to speak to a court administrator if her court date doesn’t work for her. The two then part ways after telling one another to drive safe.
Walter Fields, chairman of local advocacy group the Black Parents Workshop, issued a statement Wednesday condemning Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior, demanding she issue an apology to the officer and calling for her resignation from the board.
Fields also accused Lawson-Muhammad of attempting “to exercise her civic privilege during a routine traffic stop.”
“Given the lengths to which efforts are underway nationwide and locally to address the real issue of police brutality against African Americans, it is appalling that this Board Member would conduct herself in this way,” Fields wrote in the statement. “The officer should be commended for his professionalism, demeanor and the respect he showed a citizen who immediately tried to use her position to intimidate him.”
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Indeed, within the context of the national conflict to address police brutality against Black communities, this situation is more difficult to unpack than simply condemning Lawson-Muhammad’s response to the traffic stop. Without a doubt, the officer involved refrained from escalating the situation, and while community members may want Lawson-Muhammad to resign in response, she was transparent about her reaction to the stop from the get-go. She told the officer she’s afraid of cops, and given the countless accounts of unarmed Black people brutalized by police, she understandably became emotional over then encounter.
That’s not to say that Lawson-Muhammad should have called the chief a skinhead and that she shouldn’t apologize to the officer who was more sympathetic to her reaction than police in most videos of problematic traffic stops. However, that’s also not to say that the officer involved went “out of his way” by any means to cooperate with her and dissolve potential escalation—he was plainly doing his job, as people employed to keep community members safe should.
According to NJ.com, Lawson-Muhammad said in a statement issued Thursday that she personally apologized to both the officer and the police chief, and said she was being “irrational.”
“I had an irrational response to being stopped for a traffic violation. I allowed my emotions to overwhelm me that morning, and I fell short of the standards to which I hold myself,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “Like many parents, I was trying to get my children to their schools on time. When the police officer stopped me, I was upset, frustrated, and uncharacteristically out of sorts. And to my benefit, the officer did not react to my behavior. The officer kept an even tone in our interaction and performed his job well under the circumstances. I thank him for his patience.”
She went on to say that the police chief “is not the person I made him out to be.”
“He sincerely accepted my apology and agrees that we will work together to help heal our community. We have begun plans to work with community stakeholders to build stronger bonds and greater trust for the entire community,” Lawson-Muhammad said.
Kroll initially declined to comment except to say the officer “handled himself professionally,” according to New Jersey 101.5.
H/T New Jersey 101.5