On a bitter snowy night, a crowd of concerned Bordentown residents trekked gingerly across an icy parking lot and filled a high school auditorium in search of answers.
Two months had passed since the former police chief of this Burlington County town was charged with assaulting a handcuffed African American teen and making a series of deeply disturbing racist comments, some of which were caught on tape by a fellow officer. Until that moment, town officials had said little beyond issuing a statement expressing their shock.
Brian Pesce, the new police chief, took charge at the town hall meeting, held earlier this month, after the diverse crowd of 120 people began firing off questions. "I could keep you here a couple more hours," he said at one point, and promised an aggressive approach to rebuild trust between police and the community.
This wasn't the first time Pesce had faced a tough audience and tough questions. The arrest of Frank Nucera Jr., who federal prosecutors say compared African Americans to ISIS and said that all blacks should be shot, made international headlines and stirred an outcry.
In November, soon after Nucera appeared in handcuffs in federal court, Pesce met with the Southern Burlington County NAACP chapter in Moorestown. Later, he met with members of the Woodlin Lodge 30, an African American Masonic organization in Bordentown. Pesce, who is white, spoke about a change in philosophy at the department and remaking the 25-member force.
"Community outreach is a priority," Pesce, 42, said in a brief interview last week. "We have to band together and discuss problems because dialogue is how you solve issues and come together as one.
"It's not an us versus them mentality," he said. "It's an 'us' mentality that we want."
Pesce rattled off a series of initiatives he has begun: body cameras for the whole department, rigorous de-escalation training, minority hiring.
Jon Shane, a criminal justice professor at the City University of New York and a former Newark, N.J., police captain, said changing the department's image would be challenging. "It's going to take a lot of work for the department to recover from the damage," he said. "The chief will have to be out there, at various community events, at churches, and meeting with clergy and nonprofits. And the officers will have to carry the chief's message."
Crystal Charley, president of the NAACP chapter that hosted Pesce, said she was willing to give him a chance to "make good on his word" to change the culture of the police department and the narrative between police and the black community. "My only hope is that the leadership that he spoke of, a vision of new policing, is a vision that he carries out," she said. "I like what we've heard, as long as we see it in action."
Bob Moore, an African American who has lived in Bordentown more than 50 years, said he watched Pesce grow up in the town and is pleased he was tapped to lead the department. "Right now I'm happy with Pesce being the chief," said Moore, a retired postman who coached Pesce when Moore ran a summer track program for young people. "But he will need the cooperation of his department."
Jeffrey Kotora, president of the Burlington County FOP Lodge No. 2, which represents the department's 14 patrol officers, said the officers support Pesce and the various initiatives. "We are definitely trying to be a better police department for the community and for ourselves," Kotora said. "Morale is excellent — there's many reasons why, mostly because of the way things are going now as opposed to how it used to be."
Chris Burns, president of the sergeants association within that FOP lodge, echoed the sentiment. "Not a single one of us doesn't support what [Pesce] is doing, and isn't a follower and believer in all of this," Burns said. The department has seven sergeants.
Moore said in an interview after the town hall meeting that residents still have a key question: "How did [Nucera] go from being a police officer to chief without anyone knowing about his views?"
Town officials had declined to comment, saying Nucera's ongoing criminal case precludes them from talking about him.
Pesce, who worked with Nucera for 18 years, most recently as captain, has taken the same stance. When asked last week whether he would describe the department's culture under Nucera, Pesce said: "Not at this time."
Nucera, who has pleaded not guilty, has declined to comment. His lawyer, Rocco Cipparone, said the former chief "had a stellar 34-year career as a police officer and had a former military career" that had no blemishes. Cipparone questioned the authenticity of the tapes on which the case against Nucera was built.
After Nucera's abrupt retirement a year ago, amid FBI questioning, Pesce was named acting chief. Before his departure, Nucera, 60, had been paid $154,447 a year in a dual role as chief and town administrator.
Pesce, who rose through the ranks and was sworn in as chief last week, will be paid $134,000 a year.
Pesce said he could not grant an in-depth interview without the permission of the town administrator, Michael Theokas. When Theokas was asked, he said he would not allow it, saying, "We are trying to see the value to our residents of continuing to have that kind of publicity. … Our department has gone through a lot, and we're in a good place."
Born in Bordentown, a town of about 11,000 near Trenton, Pesce said at the NAACP meeting that he loves his hometown and hopes it won't be judged by the alleged actions of "one person." At the town hall meeting, he told the crowd that he has "a diverse group of friends" and that his childhood heroes were T.J. Hooker, a fictitious beat cop featured in a 1980s TV show, and Allen Iverson, the former NBA star who played for the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I always knew I wanted to be a cop," said Pesce, who is married and has three children.
Pesce dismissed concerns that a racist culture may have taken root under Nucera and may now be difficult to reverse. "All I can say is I don't think so because, I'm, we're younger, it's a generation thing." He also said that officers in the department who witnessed Nucera's alleged racist conduct had reported it to federal authorities despite fear of repercussions. "This is the new norm," he said.
At the NAACP meeting, Pesce addressed questions about the "blue wall of silence" and racial profiling by saying there are now various mechanisms in place to report rogue behavior to local and state authorities. Pesce also said he will rely on "early warning" software to track police stops and view dashboard camera footage to check for questionable conduct.
One of the first things Pesce did as chief was to hold a meeting and tell the officers that they must view themselves as guardians, not warriors. "A warrior is someone who escalates situations and forces compliance, while a guardian is someone who de-escalates situations" using communication skills to end conflict, he said.
This philosophy was promoted by President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was co-chaired by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. It issued recommendations three years ago on ways to improve police and community relations.
Pesce also hired two minority officers, boosting the minorities on the 25-member force to a total of four. They include a Hispanic woman, the first woman on the force.
Besides the new body cams, he has purchased $140,000 worth of new dashboard cameras with a 360-degree view around police vehicles.
Training has been stepped up, going beyond the de-escalation and cultural diversity awareness sessions required by the state, he said.
Community policing has also been put into high gear. Pesce said his officers will attend at least three community events a month and interact with residents. Also planned are "coffee with the cops," "pizza with the police," and a "day of empowerment" with high school students.
Casual uniforms — polo shirts and khakis — were provided to the officers to wear at community events, Pesce said, "to provide us with a softer, more approachable look."
Will Johnson, an Arlington, Texas, chief who deals with hate crime issues with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an emailed statement that community policing is critical in building harmony in a town. "When people believe in us, they are more willing to trust and cooperate with us to prevent incidents and quickly recover from other incidents," he wrote.
Johnson also said that hate crimes require a strong response. "If the community believes we take these incidents seriously, they will partner alongside with us and assist in the healing process," he said.
Pesce told the crowd at the town hall that change was triggered when officers in the department reported Nucera's behavior to federal authorities.