–By Tom Moran Newark Star-Ledger Jan 11 2021
During the George Floyd protests, New York City saw plenty of violence, and Newark saw none. Across the state, Camden protests were peaceful, while violence broke out across the river in Philadelphia. These New Jersey police departments are embracing reform and de-escalation tactics.
Newark Police officers did not fire a single shot during the calendar year 2020, and the city didn’t pay a single dime to settle police brutality cases. That’s never happened, at least in the city’s modern history.
At the same time, crime is dropping, and police recovered almost 500 illegal guns from the street during the year.
“This is significant,” says Aqeela Sherills, head of the Newark Community Street Team, a group of mostly former offenders who work to defuse violence in the city’s most violent wards. “It speaks to how reform has really taken hold in the city.”
Larry Hamm, the godfather of police protests in Newark as head of the People’s Organization for Progress, agreed. “Police brutality is still a problem,” he says. “But it’s fair to say the consent decree has had a real impact.”
The reforms are the results of a federal consent decree, the billy club used by the Department of Justice after a long investigation concluded in 2014 revealed the rot that had infested the department for decades. It found a rogue department that tolerated widespread brutality and racism, with no accountability, and zero training on how to de-escalate confrontations with civilians.
“You had a law enforcement agency with no training about how to enforce the law,” says Peter Harvey, the former state attorney general who is overseeing the implementation of the consent decree.
When Paul Fishman, the former U.S. Attorney, began his investigation in 2011, he found the department’s culture was broken in almost every way. A reflexive resort to violence. Racial bias in stops and enforcement. And an internal affairs bureau so corrupted that it sustained just one complaint of police brutality over five years.
“The use of force was too high, and the reporting of it was too low,” Fishman says.
This is a remarkable success story, all done at a time when serious crime in Newark has dropped by 40 percent in the last five years. Both Harvey and Fishman say the key to that success is that Mayor Ras Baraka and Police Director Anthony Ambrose took the mission to heart.
They hired more Black and brown officers, began training programs based on best-practices, required any officer who uses force in any way to report it in detail, and for the supervisor to review it. The bad cops were suddenly outed.
Former Gov. Christie Whitman fought like a wildcat to keep the DOJ away from the State Police during the racial-profiling scandal, a defensive reaction that is more commonplace. But the DOJ came anyway, and it succeeded.
Baraka welcomed this intervention. He himself was a leading campaigner against police brutality before he became mayor. And Ambrose, who looks like a stereotypical old Italian beat cop, turned out to be a progressive at heart, a guy who took a knee during local demonstrations over the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.
“I’ve been around a long time, and that was outright murder,” Ambrose says. “Most of the officers and the rank-and-file I speak with say the same thing.”
The work to reshape the department’s warped culture is painstaking, and even after five years, people like Hamm worry that it could all collapse if the DOJ leaves. Even this success stories is tentative. On Jan. 1, a Newark officer fatally shot Carl Dorsey III, of South Orange, during a confrontation in the South Ward, a case that’s being investigated by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who moved investigations of fatal police shootings out of local hands to ensure an impartial investigation.
Grewal calls Newark’s progress “nothing short of remarkable” and says his own ambitious statewide police reforms drew partly on that that success, and a similar turnaround in Camden.
The work to fix a dysfunctional department is painstaking. A big part is community outreach, with endless public meetings between police and civilians to work out grievances, engagement of local clergy and neighborhood leaders, and relying on civilian groups to settle differences where possible, rather than police.
During the George Floyd protests, it was the Street Team that saved the day when a group of protesters besieged the city police precinct where the 1967 riots began, throwing bottles and agitating for a clash. The cops stayed inside, and Sherrills’ group engaged.
“There were a bunch of folks from outside the city who were determined to create havoc,” Sherrills said. “We followed them all day. We saw the kids in back throwing bottles, so folks engaged the community. Folks literally stopped them and said ‘Enough of that.’”
Training is critical, too, especially on de-escalating violence. Brian O’Hara, the deputy chief overseeing training, said the old-fashioned version was to show officers how to win a confrontation, when to make the move. “It was a paramilitary kind of training, just focused on stopping the threat,” he said.
Now, the model is to calm things down, engage the threatening person, while creating distance or taking cover, and buying time until reinforcements arrive, he says. Newark officers view videos presenting challenging scenarios, offer responses, then discuss it with supervisors.
“It’s not about resolving the situation as quickly as you can,” O’Hara says. “It’s about protecting the sanctity of every life.”
During the Trump administration, the DOJ stopped intervening like this in state and local departments, which should surprise no one. State and local rights, you know. And it’s mostly Black and brown people getting killed anyway.
So, count this as another blessing of the changeover to Joe Biden: Based on his history, he’s going to give a damn. Newark won’t be the last city to get this forced make-over.
Progress, of course, is always fragile, and the entire effort can be poisoned by one spectacularly unjustified shooting. Hamm notes that training doesn’t always work, and that Minneapolis police had de-escalation training before Officer Derek Chauvin snuffed the life out of George Floyd, knowing he was on film, and that his fellow officers wouldn’t think of intervening.
“He didn’t have a concern in the world,” Hamm says.
In the end, it’s not just about training and policy, but about the hearts and minds of police officers, and the relationships they have with the people they are charged to protect. In Newark over the last five years, the evidence of progress on all that is now beyond dispute.