Can Police Reform Work? A Mayor and a Historian Discuss Policing in Newark, N.J.

In a still from "Policing the Police 2020," Mayor Ras Baraka (in the purple shirt) of Newark, N.J., marches with those protesting the killing of George Floyd in summer 2020.

In a still from "Policing the Police 2020," Mayor Ras Baraka (in the purple shirt) of Newark, N.J., marches with those protesting the killing of George Floyd in summer 2020.

March 16, 2021

As students at Howard University in 1991, Jelani Cobb and Ras Baraka attended an activists’ retreat one weekend in rural Cortland, New York. A group of students, all Black men, went on a hike. When they returned to the trailhead, they were met by six waiting police cars.

“There’s a police car for each of us,” Cobb remembered. “We’re in a mostly white town in upstate New York. They want us up against the cars. … That idea about policing, it was formative, and it was an example of exactly what we had been thinking about as activists.”

“I remember I didn’t go back outside either,” said Baraka. “That was a crazy situation. But all those kinds of incidents, it’s interesting now that I’m in a different kind of position.”

Today, Ras Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Jelani Cobb is a historian and a writer for The New Yorker. Over the last three decades, each has followed an independent path, pursuing questions about racism, policing and justice.

And so, it made sense that in 2015, after the country was roiled by a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and again in Minneapolis, in 2020, Cobb sought out his old friend. Their conversations became part of the 2016 FRONTLINE film Policing the Police, set in Newark. Last year’s follow-up, Policing the Police 2020, traces how the reform effort has played out in Newark.

Those wide-ranging conversations, five years apart, are being published for the first time by FRONTLINE in extended videos and transcripts. Rich in personal history, the interviews explore legacies of racism, violence and citizen’s distrust of police, seeking to answer the question: Will things ever get better?

For Cobb, Newark was an ideal laboratory for measuring change. In 2015, not long after Baraka took office in 2014, the city launched reforms mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice in response to a long record of police abuses and civil rights violations. By 2020, some of the efforts had produced success; others had been frustrated.

Even before he was elected mayor, Baraka’s life was intertwined with the history he would confront in office. He is the son of Amiri Baraka, a poet, author and leader of the Black Power movement. In 1967, Amiri Baraka was severely beaten by police during deadly race riots that burned through Newark after a white policeman assaulted a Black cab driver.

Growing up, Ras Baraka was detained and beaten when he went to a police station with his mother to protest his brother’s arrest. As mayor, reforming the police department was high on his agenda.

“The police department systemically has been used as a weapon against working people and poor people in this country,” he told Cobb in 2015. “Whether you were in a union, whether you were a new immigrant, whether you were … an African American, it was used to keep inequality going. That relationship has to be fundamentally changed.”

Watch and read Baraka and Cobb’s extended 2015 conversation.

The Justice Department found that about 75% of police stops in Newark at the time had no legal justification. While reporting with the police department’s Gang Enforcement Unit, Cobb witnessed angry confrontations between officers and residents. He later showed Baraka video footage of police accosting a Black pedestrian and, after a tense exchange, throwing him to the ground.

“That’s not how you police. I mean, that’s racism right there,” Baraka responded.

Cobb wondered whether protecting the public’s safety was incompatible with protecting civil rights. Was it possible in Newark, he asked, to deal with violent crimes without “bending the law as it relates to people’s rights?”

“In order to police properly, you have to have the kind of moral … position to do it in a way to get support from the community,” Baraka said. “Right now, it doesn’t exist. We don’t have the moral standing to be able to bring justice to a community that has been treated unjustly for centuries.”

In the summer of 2020, Cobb returned to Newark. Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping the country after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The crisis of institutional racism was in plain sight; how to fix it was less clear. Cobb wanted to see how reforms had fared under Mayor Baraka and whether Newark offered a glimmer of promise.

Baraka could claim some success. Complaints about police from residents had hit record lows. Arrests were down, and so was crime. After Floyd’s death, crowds marched to a police precinct in Newark, but they did so with the mayor’s blessing. The protests were peaceful.

“I think we are a world away from where it was when I was a child, where it was five years ago as well,” Baraka said. “So I think we’ve made considerable progress.”

Newark had retrained police and adopted hiring practices that increased diversity on the force, which is now almost 80% Black and Latino. The mayor created “community street teams” of activists to address citizen complaints and introduced weekly community roundtables.

Last summer, the city redirected $11 million from the police budget to an office of violence prevention. Baraka said that in Newark, “defunding” the police was not an end in itself — “If there’s an armed robbery in progress, people are still going to call 911” — but means to broaden the base of public safety.

“Our perspective is at a different level than other people’s perspectives. For example, I think defunding is necessary, right?” he said. “I think it’s necessary to begin to divert funding from police organizations to other kind of opportunity in a community: social services, other kind of things like that. … People keep talking about ‘defund and abolish.’ It has not developed into, ‘What are we going to do with the money; how is this going to roll out?’”

Watch and read Baraka and Cobb’s extended 2020 conversation.

There were also setbacks. Baraka tried to create a civilian complaint review board with the power to conduct investigations of police misconduct. But the state Supreme Court sided with the local police union, in ruling the citizen panel could not claim that authority.

At the end of 2020, the city reported that Newark police had not fired a single shot over the year. The streak was soon broken, when police killed a suspect on New Year’s Day, but it seemed a sign of short-term gains.

Assessing the impact of Newark’s reforms, Cobb concluded that “so much and so little has changed.” For Baraka, transformational change is a long-term goal. It means accepting that violence is a public health crisis growing from racism, poverty and violence, which he said have helped create a traumatized population.

“Growing up in Newark, you’ve experienced some level of trauma,” Baraka said. “I’ve been traumatized, you know? I’ve seen my father beaten by police, arrested by the police. I’ve been arrested, stopped by police. I’ve seen people shot.

“Most of the adults are walking around here with untreated trauma,” he continued. “And then we run into each other, and that trauma crashes, and then we have a huge explosion. And police are traumatized because … they were indoctrinated by a super-structure that told them that the community don’t like them, that the neighborhood is violent, that the criminals live here, people are going to murder you, shoot you, they don’t care about you.

“And so that’s a recipe for what we see today. And what we try to do is go face-to-face, the police and the community, come face-to-face with those kind of realities.”

Read and watch the extended 2015 and 2020 conversations between Ras Baraka and Jelani Cobb and stream Policing the Police 2020 and Policing the Police. Find hundreds more documentaries in FRONTLINE’s online collection of films, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App.

Philip Bennett

Philip Bennett, Special Projects Editor, FRONTLINE



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