Ras Baraka: “We Need Police … We Just Don’t Want Them To Shoot Us”
Police in Newark will never win community support if they're "looked at as an occupying army," says Mayor Ras Baraka.
When Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took office in 2014, he inherited a long list of challenges: entrenched poverty, soaring unemployment, weekly homicides and a bureaucracy struggling to meet the needs of residents. But the police department presented itself as an especially thorny and pressing issue.
The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Newark Police Department in 2011 after allegations of civil rights violations, including excessive force, discriminatory policing, and unwarranted stops, searches and seizures. When the DOJ published its findings in 2014, the results were eye-popping: 75 percent of police stops in Newark had no justifiable basis. The Justice Department said Newark police underreported use-of-force incidents and failed to properly investigate them; and that some officers even stole citizens’ property and money.
In March, the Justice Department and the city entered into what’s known as a consent decree. The agreement mandates specific reforms, including improved training, policies and procedures, a requirement for in-car and body-worn cameras, and a revamped office to investigate civilian complaints.
The community wants police to aggressively respond to crime, Baraka told FRONTLINE. “We need police in our neighborhood,” he said. “We just don’t want them to shoot us in the back while we’re running away in a traffic stop, or choke people for selling cigarettes.”
In the below interview with Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker – filmed for the FRONTLINE documentary Policing the Police – the mayor talks about the history of tensions between the community and the police in Newark; the barriers to reform; and why he says “you’ll never get community support if you’re looked at as an occupying army.”
This is the edited transcript of a conversation held on May 6, 2016.
… I think it’s been eight months that we’ve been in the city filming and talking to people and everything. And I have to tell you, it has not been an easy kind of project.
One of the things that we encountered was … people who were reticent to talk about anything relating to your administration, people who were reticent about anything related to the police. Just wonder why it might be, why you think that is.
Well, I think people are used to exploitation. We’ve experienced that many, many times, time and time again. People who come into the community … and people aren’t usually pleased with the way they’re characterized or the way some things are sensationalized. So they feel better not participating in it at all, you know? …
At the same time, we’re talking with police. Despite the DOJ investigation and the consent decree, we talked with a lot of people on the police force that don’t really seem to see a problem here.
Sure. You know, it’s a fresh wound. There’s going to be a level of denial. You’re talking about people who have to admit that there was some wrongdoing. And that’s part of the initial problem, or thing that we have to reform, is people have to see where they went wrong.
If they don’t see that at all, then it’s difficult to change them. And so most of the work is about how do you change the culture of police officers that are coming on to prevent this, not just about correcting people’s behavior that are on the force now.
Is there any progress in terms of people seeing their approach to policing differently or seeing what people think of as problematic?
That’s like trying to make America, you know, realize it was racist and white supremacist for so many years. So it’s a difficult task to get them to see that. And I don’t think that you’ll ever get all of the police officers that were involved in that to kind of admit the history of the wrongdoing.
What you do have to [do] is to try to put things in place to prohibit the kind of behavior that’s going to be dangerous.
We went down to speak to the state police: myself, the public safety director, the new chief of police, Mr. [Darnell] Henry. We spoke to the colonel, all their folks, because they were under a similar consent decree. And our monitor came with us as well. And we went through a whole kind of history and the automation and everything that they have to kind of check and recheck the patterns and practices and behaviors of their officers, and I thought it was pretty good. …
So the consent decree, looking at it, it is pretty extensive and very detailed, and things like there being a supervisor present whenever there’s an instance of use of force. Is it even possible for Newark Police Department to comply with that level of scrutiny?
Well, we don’t have any choice. I think we’re going to have to run down a checklist of things that need to be done and try to put systems in place where it’s not as everyday and mundane as somebody being around all the time, where some of this stuff is automated. Like they’re doing in the state where all stops are recorded. All arrests, when you pull people out of cars, have to be inputted into a computer system that’s sent down that we keep a copy of. Every opportunity where you even engage somebody in a car stop or pedestrian stop has to be recorded — either physically recorded or recorded through video or recorded through a computer.
There’s ways to get those things done through technology. Which is what we were able to see at the state level that we’re going to have to bring down here. We have to invest some money into some of the stuff that we need to be able to check these practices. …
Are you under pressure to bring numbers down, in terms of crime and homicide in the city?
The only pressure that I feel is the pressure that I give myself. There’s nobody telling me that, you know, “You need to bring the numbers down.” Obviously the people in the community want to live in a safe community, and you deal with that when you go out here.
And I address people. The residents, they want something to be done about what’s happening in the city. They know what’s been going on and where they live at. And at the end of the day they want some answers, and they want people to respond to them in a way.
But they know we’re doing this together, right? So when I go out to these community meetings that we always have, you know, the residents, they talk about it and they show their frustration, but they’re not to the point where they say, “You better do this or we’re going to throw you out,” that type of thing. I think that they know I’m part of the city. I’ve been here, and genuinely we’re trying to do what we can and make sure that their communities and neighborhoods are safe. …
There have been a few things in the time we’ve been here … How big a problem is that in terms of the personnel that you’re dealing with?
Right. Well, I think because we have a consent decree, it doesn’t mean all that stuff goes away. And just because I became the mayor doesn’t mean all those things go away.
What changes is that the way we respond to it, how we deal it. We suspend people. We bring criminal charges if necessary. We remove people. We do what we need to do. We send a message to the police department. And then we put mechanisms in place to try and catch those things or catch people who we think would do those things earlier.
We’re in this Black Lives Matter moment. There’s a lot of conversation around police accountability. But I’ve heard you speaking and saying you think there are people in the community – African-Americans in the community — who actually want aggressive policing. That [it’s] something that they’re requesting. … Was that surprising to you when you came into office? Was it something that you knew already, that there were African-Americans who thought this way?
Oh, I absolutely knew that. … Black people, African-Americans, are the same as any other people in the country. They want safety. They want security. I grew up here. I live here. I know that people want us to respond to violence, to crime, aggressively in their community.
So the old rhetoric that I think is centered around self-hatred and racism where people start saying, “Oh, you know, what about black-on-black crime,” right? People have been concerned about that forever. It’s unfair for people to say that people in these communities don’t care about the level of violence that takes place in their community, because they do care.
And they do whatever they can to try to get it abated. And they put people in office to help them get those things taken care of. And yeah, they want police presence, they want police response, they want people arrested, they want safe communities. They just don’t want people to abuse their authority. Which to me is reasonable, right?
We need police in our neighborhood. We just don’t want them to shoot us in the back while we’re running away in a traffic stop, or choke people for selling cigarettes. I think that’s fair. … Those things are not exclusive from one another.
When we were in school, we read extensively about these questions and we talked for hours about these kinds of issues. Has it been more difficult being on the other side of this, being in office and actually trying to address these things? Are there things that you think maybe this is not something that gets fixed in five years or 10 years or even the next 20 years?
Even when I was young, we would say that the struggle is protracted. So we knew that it was going to take a period of time. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we need to push in a direction where we can get change, some immediate change and some revolutionary change. Some of it is going to come gradually and some of it will come instantly, but you have to keep pushing forward. …
There are people who believe now that because you elect individuals to office that those individuals will make the problems disappear. That’s just not true, right? There’s no magic button, no beans, nothing that you have that make everything away, right? And one person didn’t create the problem, so one person is not going to be able to fix it. …
One of the questions I’ve had since I’ve been here — actually, I’ve had it before, but it’s been on my [mind] more, I guess, clearly since I’ve been here — is whether or not a city … that has homicide rates that are troubling, if it’s even possible to bring down those numbers while complying with people’s kind of constitutional rights.
Right. I think it is. I think the problem for all these years is the kind of definition or the characterization that you cannot. And people believe that they would compromise people’s security by following the Constitution. So what you’re in essence saying is nobody can be safe unless there’s, like, some kind of fascist regime. Unless we’re mistreating everybody, we can’t reduce crime and violence in our community. I just don’t believe that’s true.
I think that you need community support in helping you reduce crime and violence in the community. And you’ll never get community support if you’re looked at as an occupying army, as opposed to a community policing or a force that’s there to work with and help the residents of the city. Other than that, you’ll get what we got now.
But you also can’t solve these problems with the police.
What do you mean?
Like, the problems that we have, the origins of violence. The press every day will report the kind of violence that happens in these cities. Every day. Sometimes five, six times a day. Over and over again to characterize or paint a picture of an out of control, barbaric kind of place where people are lawless and have no respect for life.
And these are the kind of images and ideology that spreads throughout the country. And unfortunately police officers who grew up in this country also, you know, kind of grew up with this idea and philosophy that they’re being fed by a larger superstructure that informs them of the people that they’re getting ready to go deal with everyday.
So that is the picture that they see: criminal, crime, violence, gang. It’s a picture of some black dude with dreads or some cat with a baseball cap on towards his back and his pants and a white t-shirt. So in their mind, when they see these kids, they see criminal, murderer. So they respond in that way. And that to me is a problem.
If this problem is taking place in 30, 40 cities in America, and it’s been happening for the last two decades, then the journalists, the discussion have to cease just being around the surface of the fact that people are dying. Because that’s obvious. …
If there’s a deeper kind of sociological issues that are taking place, or economic issues that are taking place in these cities, when are we going to discuss them? And when are we going to find a solution to them? Or are we just satisfied or comfortable, reticent with the fact that black boys are dying in these communities in large numbers? …
Chasing those numbers is what people do. And that’s what drives them to do unconstitutional and crazy things. Because they’re chasing those numbers.
Does that ever feel like sweeping the sand off the beach?
Heh. I mean, as a matter of fact, if you’re chasing numbers, it will be like that. And then there are people who argue, oh the numbers are down in this city, the numbers have been down for this long. The numbers are down in homicides, really, nationally, right? And violent crime throughout the country. It’s just still relatively high in these cities. We’re still witnessing, you know, the kind of large homicides that are taking place.
In some of the places, they’ve doubled their police forces. They’ve spent more money in policing. They militarized the police force. They’ve done a number of things. And now you see the results of some of that stuff, right? What we have to do is begin thinking about what a comprehensive and holistic approach to how to address crime and violence in these communities in a way that is constitutional and holistic.
What are the most difficult things that you’ve had to deal with since you’ve been on this two-year journey thus far to reform the police here?
One is bureaucracy. The bureaucracy of city government is always a problem in terms of how to get things done in an efficient and expeditious way. I wish there was a training that we can give people to get that thing done. But, you know, obviously it takes us more time to get things accomplished than we wish. So that is a specific problem.
And then getting people on the same page collectively to say this is how we’re going to strategize to make these things happen. Sometimes you come from a group of people who are used to being outside fighting for things and not getting them, right?
So now you have the opportunity to get the things that you want. How do you organize in such a way to actually make it happen? We don’t have to be out there on the steps anymore.
Some people are so used to it they’re going to go out there anyway. But then you have to go out the window and say, what are you doing? We’re having a meeting upstairs. …
So you find yourself at odds with people who are just used to the kind of knee-jerk responses that they’ve been having for decades. Like, the kind of learned responses, I should say. And you know, that’s been difficult for us to try to navigate this space of being inside and outside it at the same time.
How on board with reform is the police department now? Is this a kind of enthusiastic commitment? Or you know, where someone we talked to kind of said these are guys who sit behind desks and push pencils and they don’t really know what it’s like to be out on the streets.
Right. It’s an excuse. But ultimately, I don’t think that there’s no enthusiasm about it, because there’s no understanding of what’s happening. If people aren’t even admitting that there was a problem, they’re not going to be enthusiastic about the change.
I think people know change is coming. It’s inevitable. I think that’s the feeling everywhere. So some people are trying to get change in a way that they can swallow it. Where they’re comfortable with it in a way. And then, you know, you still have holdouts who think they’re going to, you know, hold their breath and hopefully the change just won’t come. And that’s not going to happen. They’re just going to suffocate themselves because this is the trend and the direction things are going in.
And so you have to win people over, convince people, and some people are going to have to be changed, you know, through behavior and practice and policy and law. Unfortunately, it’s not a very easy process. It’s difficult. Any change is difficult. Especially, you know, in an entrenched institution like a police department. So it’s difficult, so it’s not enthusiastic at all.
One of the things that has been kind of notable since you’ve been here has been just how strapped the department is and how strapped the city is in terms of computers, in terms of how many officers there are who are on the beat, on the force. How big an obstacle is that? Do you actually have the resources to do what reform would entail here?
Right now we don’t. But we have to figure out how we get there. You know, the consent decree, the monitor, is going to cost is millions of dollars. But the money that we spend on cases and lawyers and workers’ compensation and individual complaints is also enormous, right?
So we have to figure out where we find the savings at and invest it in areas. I think that reformative police is efficient. It helps us save money in our city. It helps have a department that runs better, runs smoother. And the money that we’re wasting, spending it on people, who have to take us to court — we could be buying computers. We could be putting more people on the force. We could be doing the different things that we need to do. …
I went down to Rutgers Library and looked at the Lilley Report [which examined the root causes of the 1967 riots in Newark]. And kind of going through it and seeing how that cab driver, John Weir Smith, is pulled out — in 1967 — pulled out of his car, beaten by police in kind of full view of his community. And that sparked the riot, the rebellions in 1967. Can something like that happen today in Newark?
I think it’s possible to happen anywhere. I think Newark is no different than Baltimore or any of those places in terms of the conditions that create the problem.
So it’s possible. I mean, how we respond to those type of things, like I said, is important. I think that we’re building a — one, we have a deep relationship with the community and we consistently build more relationships with clearly, with activists, with organizations, with young people in the city. So we can — and by all means try to — avert any, like, same situations as occurred in 1967 or any other kind of place for that matter.
But the conditions that led to that I think are very similar today in most American cities than they were then. And so it’s a scary proposition to think that those things could actually take place. …
Your biography is kind of an example of this same question we’re talking about with the black community. Your father famously was beaten nearly to death by police in the riot of 1967, during the rebellion in 1967. And tragically you lost your sister to violence. How does that influence your perspective on these issues?
Well, it kind of puts you front and center of the kind of discussion that’s happening in the city and around the country. My father was against the death penalty. I watched him during the death of my sister and he was still against the death penalty at that time. And the first response is, you know, you want this person to die because he took the life of your sister. And watching my father and my mother talk about this kind of thing, you know, kind of makes you understand their commitment to what they thought their principles and values and ideas was.
And it’s the same thing, you know? We’re in a difficult situation here in these communities where there’s violence and all kinds of other things that are taking place. And we want to be safe and free like any other American. And I understand that. That’s why I understand the differences between the issue.
But we also cannot use that as an opportunity to allow ourselves to be victimized or abused or mistreated by authorities who are supposed to protecting us, right? We cannot give up one for the other.
And there is an opportunity to actually have both, because there are some people in America who actually do experience both, right? We shouldn’t have to choose, because we live in Newark, New Jersey, between safety of our family members and abuse from police officers. We should be able to live in safe communities and have police officers who treat us like human beings, the same way they would treat anybody else in the neighborhood where they live.
We talked with retired people, not on the force anymore. And they said that the Newark Police Department functions more along the lines of nepotism than efficiency. Or that, you know, the person who befriends the right people, doesn’t offend this person, that person has a good career, as opposed to maybe the person who’s the best cop. It’s kind of a jaded, cynical perspective among people. Is that the case? Is that not the case? Is that something that’s changing? Is it something you see as a problem on the force?
I think historically that might have been the issue. There were whole groups of people that were excluded from being police officers. In all of these cities and Newark especially, there’s a whole, you know, history of the Bronze Shields in Newark, where they created a black police officer organization because they were excluded. I think a lot of those things have been tackled. Or have been addressed over the years. …
So I wouldn’t doubt that, you know, the police department was like that. Or in some respects still has the remnants of that today. But I know that there’s been an active kind of effort, even before I got here, to try to reduce that or change that. And I think that the consent decree and the way we’re going forward is going to address some of those things. …
… It’s very easy to be idealistic when we were 20 years old and protesting in the street about this, or about Rodney King, or about Marion Barry or any other kind of things that we took to the street for. But I wonder about just kind of remaining optimistic, if it’s more difficult now for you in this position?
I think I don’t have the luxury of pessimism, so I always say that. I mean, I don’t think you should be in charge if you’re not optimistic, because that means that you don’t think that things could be fixed. So if you don’t think they could be fixed then why are you trying to fix them? Right? …
So at the end of the day, you should have some level of optimism about how to address these concerns and problems. And maybe when I was 19 or 20, I was an idealist. Clearly now, I’m not an idealist. I’m a materialist. That’s what I believe. And I think idealism is, to me, is to believe that things are going to remain the same, you know?
And a materialist approach is trying to change right now, trying to get action and make things move for people’s life. Like that they can feel and touch materially, right? I’m way off of the idea of or the thought process of, you know, everything is going to be great tomorrow if we just march to this place. I’m more like, you know, this is a protracted, long kind of struggle, and we fight and we get gains and we get gains and we get gains, and we keep getting gains.
But it’s interesting though to me because, you know, we saw that transition. It came in the beginning of the political transition that people who were in the streets, you know, people who had led the greatest mass movement for democracy, in this country — in the decade we were born. You were born in ’69?
In the decade we were born — that was the decade in which all this is happening. And then we grew up with this transition into politics. And then we get represented at the highest level of politics. And then people take to the streets, you know, in the midst of this because you get to the highest level of politics and it looks a lot like it did before you were in politics in some ways. And I don’t mean to be nihilistic or pessimistic. But I just think it’s more like — if there’s an algorithm to solve this, it’s a way more complicated one than you could imagine.
I agree with that. But I think there’s a whole piece of history that’s always left out of that. So people, when they look at this, they think we moved from the Voting Rights Act to President Obama.
And that’s just not how it happened, right? So there’s a whole period that’s not talked about. The assassination of Martin Luther King. The assassination of Malcolm X. Both Kennedys, right? All of the things that were happening around the world and in Africa and in the kind of the nationalist and Black Power movement and the kind of the young socialists and workers and all of these folks in these cities all over the country, and the repression that was happening. That whole part is missing.
Then there’s a whole missing part after that of the response to that by the state. You know, Reagan and the deregulation movement and all these other kind of things where people began to give up — they would rather all workers have nothing than to give anything to black and brown poor people in this country, which is why we have what we have today. The kind of results of, you know, this Trump thing. Or the loud kind of movement of Bernie Sanders. But, you know, would penalize all workers, you know?
It’s like in some ways an echo of Obama, which is that when black people get to be in charge of the cities — it’s like when you see this bike which you want in the window, and you save up for it and save up for it. And then you get the bike and you’re going like, “Oh OK, it’s great but everybody else has got motorcycles now.”
So we get the cities and the industrial base is not in the city. You know, you get a black president and the country is bankrupt in the middle of two wars and so on.
Well, we have to run into a burning house. But ultimately, it also says that it’s deeper than just color. Right, that it has something to do with race and nationality, but that is not where it ends, right?
So at the end of the day, the problems that we have are not just in one instance completely and totally about the color of our skin. Even though we’re going to be plagued with that forever, because we can’t take it off.
But it’s also about our economic and geographic position to the country. And that’s something that’s not addressed or need to be talked about as well.
So I think you have some people that talk about, you know, just the national question, and then some people that talk about just the kind of economic question. And we have not been able to bring those two things together.
We’ve been able to mobilize people to get people together to vote, but we have not been able to keep that kind of movement together to even put people in the Congress in midterm elections.
To not be able to do that and then think that you’re going to have a real economic solution to what’s going on is really difficult, because you put people in office and you leave them there. Right?
Well, I mean, it’s true. I think on a kind of more direct level, it’s like, how do you get the resources to do that in Newark? We’re looking at this macro thing.
You’re right. The resources are decreasing in places. But so what you try to do, what most cities try to do is try to bring people into the city to expand economic base, expand the tax base.
Then you get gentrified.
And that’s why you have to plan. I just came from a meeting this morning. Conference of Regional Planning Association talking about how do you bring people into your community, into your city, and at the same time preserve the people, the residents that have been there already. Economically, housing-wise, all those kinds of things. There’s opportunities and tools to do that, to create mixed-income housing for a whole bunch of people, where we’re not concentrating poverty. …
All of those questions are important. You know, we’re just dealing with them right now, you know? And you’re right, we don’t have all of the tools. These cities don’t have all of the resources or all of the tools to deal with these problems.
That’s why it’s important for us to have what I’ve been asking for, this kind or urban Marshall Plan to infuse economic resources as well as technical support and all kinds of things to lift whole generations, whole populations of people out of the depths of poverty and despair that missed the, you know, Great Society, and that missed the FDR, you know, situation.
New Deal, yeah.
The New Deal. And in the time of the New Deal, the Democratic Party was, you know—
Absolutely segregated, brother. So that is [laughs] the dichotomy of progressivism in America, brother.
I think it’s an interesting thing we saw with Sanders. When the Black Lives Matter started protesting him early on in his campaign, I don’t think he realized that they were doing him the biggest favor they could have done him.
Because there’s that kind of Jim Crow of progressivism that’s like a long lineage. And say, if you can be a kind of Donald Trump populist, you can do that. But if you intend to be a Democratic populist, you actually have to deal with this question of race.
You have to. There’s no way around it. It’s absolutely no way around it. And the interesting thing is even in the things you guys are dealing with, the documentary here, is deeply involved, and it tells and race and class. And it tells when you start talking about police abuse — so all Americans aren’t being abused like this. Right?
So this isn’t an equal opportunity thing here, right? That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is important and people want to say all that. That, in itself, to me is kind of racist, for people not to even acknowledge that black people have a problem.
That there’s a particular difference.
Right. So I mean, when the people were saying Save the Whales, did it mean they hated dolphins? I mean, it’s just ridiculous to me. So at the end of the day, if black people are being affected by this problem, then we should have the courage to say that we need a remedy for black people in these communities. Black or brown or whatever.
We need to talk about that. It’s hard for us to get to some kind of revolution because we can’t even discuss it. And if we can’t discuss it, nobody is going to admit anything, right? You know, maybe we need to have a reconciliation [laughs] committee. …
We went out with the gang unit a few months ago and during the time out with them, they were doing exactly the kind of stops that the DOJ has been complaining about. Saying that, you know, people who are in a high-crime area, and that’s a basis for stopping someone, but simply living in a rough neighborhood is not reasonable suspicion.
But that was still going on kind of well after the DOJ’s findings had come out and said that these things were a problem.
Yeah, well, I don’t think that just because the DOJ said it was a problem that it means it’s going to stop, like, instantly. I mean, all they did was write some words on a piece of paper and said that this is an issue. I mean, the Kerner Commission came out in 1967. All those problems still exist in 1968. So at the end of the day, because they came out with these findings doesn’t mean that the thing is going to automatically change.
That’s why it’s important for us to put in the actual systems to address these kinds of behavior, to change the kind of culture of the police department. We just inked the document maybe a couple of weeks ago, right? So it’s obvious that — I mean, most of the police department probably haven’t even read the consent decree.
So, to at least get them to see it and read it and discuss it and put things in place to create change is, you know, a kind of a better, or a more fair kind of way to look at it, because just because they declare something was wrong doesn’t mean that these guys are going to fix it right away.
In fact, some of these guys are doing things that they don’t think is wrong at all, and therein lies what the issues are. And so they need to be addressed and trained and other kind of things. And have something to do with the police department itself in terms of the level of intelligence we have, the direct orders that they get, the superior officers and how they give instruction, and lead the rank and file down the road that they find themselves on.
So a lot of it is about leadership in the police department as well and training them to give the right direction and protocols to the rank-and-file officers.
When you talk about intelligence, what exactly do you mean by that?
Well, to be able to determine in the communities and the neighborhoods who is actually somebody you should probably stop and somebody who’s just, you know, Ms. Martha’s kid going to the store with his hat to the back.
And you have to have real intelligence to do that. And more importantly, you have to have a relationship with the community to know that, right?
And so that’s really what’s missing. That’s why it’s important for us to establish a relationship with the community, to create these walking patrols again, to have community policing where people can see the difference or know who belongs in neighborhoods, who don’t, who’s suspicious, who’s not, right? Who has a criminal record? …
And some of it is just simply about building relationships with folks in the community.
You’ve said people have reached out to you personally. People reached out to tell you, well, this is a crime that happened, this person did this and this person did that. Not necessarily through police channels, but they’d be willing to tell you these things.
Well, it’s relationships. It’s the same thing, you know? If people feel like they have a relationship with you, they can give you information and you’re not going to throw them under the bus. Right, you’re not going to put them in a lineup or, you know, have somebody knocking on their door looking for them. Right?
People want to help mitigate the issues that’s going on in their neighborhood, and they want an avenue to do that where they feel comfortable and safe to do that in. And they want to do that with people who they trust and have a relationship with, and not strangers who they don’t really have a really high regard for.
So the relationship building is extremely important. So in the midst of the reform you brought in a public safety director from a previous time in Newark. He’d been here when many of the problems occurred. … On its face, this seemed to kind of bring back someone from the era where the main problems were happening. And so I didn’t understand how that kind of lent itself to reform.
I don’t know any of these people that we could have brought back that weren’t involved in any of this thing.
The national search for people.
Yeah. But I think our problem is larger than just an individual though, so it’s a systemic problem that we have. He’s been out of the department for a long time. In talking to him, I think the same ideas that existed in him coming up in the department is with him today. …
So at the end of the day, we know what we have and we know what we need to deal with. I think that he had the demeanor, the respect of the people in the department, and I think, you know, he’s a cog in a larger wheel that we represent.
And obviously the direction that we’re going in is not a backward direction but a forward direction. And if he can go in a forward direction with us then we welcome him to be a part of that. …
The success rate for federal consent decrees with police departments is spotty. You know, some places it works, some places it doesn’t. The jury is still out on how well this works as a mechanism for reform. How confident are you that you have the right mix in terms of this consent decree? That this is actually going to work here in Newark when in lots of places it hasn’t?
Well, hopefully we’re one of the places where it does. And we’re not relying on the consent decree to transform the police department. We were making changes as soon as we walked in the door before we even saw what the consent decree finally was going to say. …
We’d already begun to put an executive order for the civilian complaint review board. We moved Internal Affairs from the community and brought it right into City Hall. We began to change the personnel there, the leadership there. We put a civilian in charge.
We did all of these things before the consent decree was even signed, or simultaneously while it was going on, because we’re not relying solely on what’s in that paper to get us to the point where we need to be. Though I think that there are some suggestions in there that we absolutely positively should do, that I agree with, and some things that I saw when I went to the state police in Trenton that I think we absolutely need to put in place.
I think those things, along with what we’re trying to do, will help us get closer to where we need to be.
Why did you move Internal Affairs into City Hall?
Well, because I think people feel more comfortable coming into City Hall than going into a building that looks like a precinct, right? Or a building that is a precinct, you know? Figure they go in there with other cops, they might run into some problems and wind up they can’t leave.
So I think that they felt more comfortable coming down here and dealing with the elected officials and the Internal Affairs at the same time. So that’s important for us.
And until we begin to change the whole culture of what [Internal Affairs] does, how it represents itself, the systemic functions of it everyday, then maybe we can think about it moving it to another place. Right now while we’re reforming it, I think it needs to stay right here.
One of the things that we’ve heard a lot, in recent years especially, is about the tension between police and African-American communities, being because of a lack of accountability and kind of lack of check on police behavior. But people also make the argument that this tension exists because of a lack of service within these communities. If you have homicides that are cleared at about 50 percent rate, or if you call the police and it takes hours for them to show up, that these are things that actually lead to kind of tension. And that’s in itself a means of devaluing black lives — [the] lack of accountability on one hand, but lack of service on the other. Is that something that you see in Newark? Is that something that’s an issue here?
Yeah, I think residents feel that way. It’s a combination of both of those things, right, so I think that is not just cut and dry, one or the other. I think it’s a combination of both of those sentiments. Not only are you going to abuse me, you’re not even going to provide me the service that I need. And so that creates the kind of tension that exists.
Some of those are about efficiencies, some of it is about attitude. I mean, a lot of our complaints right now have been about attitude, about demeanor and how they respond to people in the neighborhood and the community.
And so it’s important for us to change that, and I think the new guys that are out there walking the beat, it’s going to change that. We begin to let people communicate with folks. So I have pictures now of some of the new cops in living rooms with people, drinking coffee or lemonade or whatever. You know, the residents talking and communicating. They send it to me. Or kids playing with their horses on Clinton Avenue. These are things that are probably ain’t happening in the city in the last 30, 40 years. Right? …
We’re doing resident surveys, where police officers are calling residents, asking them what are their issues, what are their complaints about the police department, from demeanor to response time to all of those things. So, I mean, we’re not running from the issues that exist. We’re being really transparent and upfront about we have a problem and we’re trying to address the problem collectively.
And I think the residents ultimately want to see movement, right, in that direction. They don’t think that tomorrow all their problems are going to disappear, but they do want to see that we’re moving in the right direction, in a consistent and steady way.
So when you talked to the state police about their consent decree and you said there’s an early warning system, what exactly does that mean?
I think that’s in our consent decree too, the early warning system. But ultimately, what it means is that you begin to track behaviors of police officers, and you’re able to identify early on that this officer may be, you know, off track.
So there’s opportunities in the state police system that they have where they record or they send messages even to police officers kind of notifying them that there may be a complaint or there may be this other issue that they have to take some kind of corrective action or so forth and so on.
So you begin to early on address some of the things that you think will lead to these problems. And it’s a kind of systemic piece that you put in a place to collect the data on these officers and their behaviors, to allow you the opportunity to check in.
So you look at some of these officers that have done something crazy and they might have 42 complaints on them of abuse, demeanor, behavior, of all these kind of things. Somebody complaining that money got missing or so forth and so on. And these kind of things are allowed to go, until it becomes very serious, right? As opposed to putting not just an early warning detection in place, but opportunities to check in with police officers and their superiors around things that are happening.
And not only keeping track of officers, but keeping track of precincts and units. So there’s data that you could see where you could see if a unit has a high level of stops of African-Americans or a low level of stops of other people and why they stopped them. There’s ways to track that data.
And you have people analyze and they’re looking at the data, so you have a data person who’s not a police officer, who’s a civilian, who looks at this data, you know, in a scientific way and says, “Look, this looks like a pattern for a problem. We need to check in with the superior officer here, with the sergeant here.” Or we need to check in with this police office here about what’s happening with this pattern and begin to try to abate that before it turns into something, you know, crazy. And so I thought that that was great and we need that kind of system in place for police officers. Absolutely.
And you said you don’t solve the problem of crime with police — or you can’t solve the problem of crime with simply police. What did you mean by that?
In Newark at least, you know, I think the majority of the police officers here are, you know, they come to work like everybody else. They’re not coming here to beat people or to hurt them. I think they come here to do their job and most of them do a great job. …
But at the end of the day, the problems that exist in our community, we are trying to get the police to solve these problems and they can’t do that. The police are supposed to make arrests. They don’t in essence reduce a crime.
As a matter of fact, it is now that we’re getting diminishing returns on the amount of people that are being incarcerated versus the level of the crime is reducing, particularly violent crime. And so I think that we need a larger kind of holistic approach to deal with violence and crime.
I think it is a public health issue. And that’s the way we’ve been trying to talk about it. And then kind of place-based strategies to address the kind of social and systemic things that create opportunities for violence; that kind of culture cultivates crime and violence in communities, and we have to address that.
So for example, with every 25 officers we’re hiring, we’re hiring a social worker to be part of our rapid robbery response team that’s going to deal with young guys who use robbery as an entry-level crime to violence and, you know, gang-banging and all these other kinds of things. … We need to grab those kids initially and begin to redirect them. That’s our early warning system. And we direct them to other opportunities.
The police — while they’re involved in that, they are not the primary kind of person that’s going to help that thing go. They’re not driving it, right? So Rutgers University drives it. Newark — the health department is driving that.
So they would be the lead on that. And the police support that. And then in many things, the way we talk about housing or other kind of issues that we have to address, and the police can’t solve those problems. Right? Those are problems that we have to solve in another way.
It sounds like you’re saying the social causes of crime are bigger than policing. But doesn’t policing have a role in crime prevention?
Sure. I mean, police presence has a role in it, you know, how you deploy them. Hopefully, if you have the right intelligence and you get people off the street, who are going to retaliate against people or different things like that, it slows it down. It kind of helps prevent it.
But you know, I’ve seen that when somebody wants to kill somebody in these communities and there’s almost no way to prevent that from happening, you know? There are people who have been shot, that have lived and three years later the guy finally got him, right? So you know, ultimately it takes police work to help try to stop some of this stuff from escalating into craziness.
But the real fix to these things is real intervention early on. The kind of social issues that exist that we have to address from employment to mental health, to the environment that they live in, to kids that grow up in households where their caretakers are incarcerated or victims of violence, where they live in conditions of violence, who are more likely to commit violence themselves. This is opportunities for us to go into these areas, to kind of mitigate these things that would help us prevent them from being involved in crime later on in their life.
So those are things that the police officers can’t do or are not employed to do, I should say. And so the partner with us on all these things. And these are long-term fixes, you know? As opposed to us just chasing the numbers. And if we get caught up in chasing the numbers, then all of the other things we’re talking about become less and less relevant.