June 20, 2007

Ten years ago today, Monica Montoya was arrested by the Roselle Park Police Department. While it would be easy to sensationalize the issue and focus on the video that was released to the public, it is another thing to try and discuss what resulted from the incident. These are the relevant events as they were reported:

A pedestrian crossing Westfield Avenue at Chestnut Street was struck by a senior citizens van. The victim did not speak English. Roselle Park police officer Harold Breuninger was on scene responding to the accident. Monica Montoya, who worked at the Dunkin Donuts on Westfield Avenue, had stopped to help the injured woman and was asked to help translate. Monica was on her way to catch a bus to pick up her child in Elizabeth. After helping for about 10 minutes, she needed to leave to pick up her daughter. As emotions began to escalate on all side, with a police officer trying to maintain order during an investigation and a mother trying to find a way to get word to her child that she was late in picking up, Monica left officer Breuninger’s side to try to use someone’s cell phone. It was then that officer Breuninger thought she was leaving the scene without having his investigation concluded and he arrested her. The good Samaritan found herself handcuffed in the back of a police car and charged with obstructing the administration of law and resisting arrest.

Four months later, the charges against her were dropped. Three years later the municipality settled out of court for $153,000.

In between the arrest and settlement, the residents of Roselle Park took sides on the issue and made caricatures of two people. Some painted Monica Montoya as an opportunist looking for a payday and others characterized Harold Breuninger as a bully with a badge. Add to this incident the issue of race and things got ugly. It was not an issue of culture or race for officer Breuninger or Monica Montoya but it did bring up a lot of unspoken tensions with a changing demographic in Roselle Park among its residents – on both sides.

Neither Harold Breuninger nor Monica Montoya was contacted for this piece due, in part, to the confidentiality clause of the settlement agreed upon by all parties.

Now, ten years later, have things changed? Well, the Roselle Park Police Department has not only become more receptive but responsive to residents as well as reflective of the community. Officers are now equipped with body-worn cameras that benefit both police and the public. New outreach programs such as Coffee With A Cop invite an honest discussion between residents and those sworn to protect them. Although these get-togethers could easily become public relations photo-ops, members of the public have actually gone to them and discussed personal real-life incidents face-to-face in an open dialogue. Additionally, the Roselle Park Police Department hired a Latino female police officer. To be clear, she was not hired because she was a woman or Hispanic, she was hired because of her qualifications, she just happened to be a woman and Hispanic. That distinction is important.

Amid everything, missteps were addressed and changes were implemented. Were mistakes made? Yes, to say otherwise not only minimizes the significance of progress but also continues the counterproductive practice of not admitting things can improve.

Monica Montoya, a mother who just wanted to get to her child after helping and confused as to why she was arrested, returned to her private life.

As for Harold Breuninger, last year he was promoted to Sergeant. During his oath of office, he spoke of the moral fiber and professionalism of police officers being challenged. Perhaps reflecting on his own actions in 2007 being brought into question, Sgt. Breuninger stated during his public comments, “It’s been a long road.”