Policing the PoliceView film
James Jacoby & Jelani Cobb
JELANI COBB, Correspondent: [voice-over] In Newark, New Jersey, every city council hearing starts with Whitney Houston’s version of the national anthem. She’s a hometown hero.
CLERK: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Newark Municipal Council’s public meeting.
JELANI COBB: But tonight is not just an ordinary meeting. People have packed City Hall to speak up about the need for more police accountability. It’s a conversation happening in cities all across the country.
1st NEWARK RESIDENT: Hello. My name is Laquan Thomas. I done been robbed by the cops, I done been assaulted by the cops. Like, that’s crazy! Like, you all are supposed to be serving and protecting the community, but they serve and disrespect the community.
2nd NEWARK RESIDENT: I’ve been a victim of them more than once. I’ve been the victim of retaliation after reporting police abuses.
3rd NEWARK RESIDENT: I don’t know a day that I walked outside and did not see police treat people injustice. Are the criminals being dealt with? Maybe, but the ones doing the 9-to-5, paying their taxes—why are we subject to the same punishment as the rest of them?
JELANI COBB: I’ve been going to meetings like this for years, writing about race and policing for The New Yorker magazine.
[CNN interview] There seems to have been, you know, really entrenched distrust for the police before.
[voice-over] I was in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white policeman killed Michael Brown, a young black man. After the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, I took this cell phone video of cops trying to put down the protests.
I cover these stories because I see the tension between African-Americans and the police as a gauge of race relations in this country. And it’s led me to wonder, What would it take for policing to ever be different?
In the summer of 2014, I started looking at Newark, one of the more recent cities to be accused of abusive and discriminatory policing.
PAUL FISHMAN, U.S. Attorney, New Jersey: Three years ago, we announced that we were launching an investigation into whether the Newark Police Department had engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.
JELANI COBB: The Justice Department found rampant misconduct.
JOYCELYN SAMUELS, United States Asst. Attorney General: --that the Newark Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests on the city of Newark’s black residents.
JELANI COBB: The DoJ demanded reform, but I wanted to know how reform could happen in Newark, a poor city where last year, there were more than 300 shootings and 105 murders—
NEWSCASTER: --twice the number of carjackings—
JELANI COBB: --a rate nine times higher than New York City’s. Gangs and drugs drive the violence—
NEWSCASTER: Three teens were shot—
JELANI COBB: --and the department is underfunded, overstretched and under fire for the way they do things.
NEWSCASTER: Details this morning on a double shooting in New Jersey, a woman killed and a man wounded.
JELANI COBB: At the street level, the effort to halt the bloodshed falls on the Newark PD’s gang unit. After writing about the police for years from the outside, I wanted to see things from the perspective of the cops themselves. It took months before they agreed to give us access.
Sgt. JOE CONZENTINO: [at roll call] We had a gun robbery at 12:30 hours. 49 Fairview Avenue—
JELANI COBB: Sergeant Joe Conzentino is in charge.
Sgt. JOE CONZENTINO: The victim, Mr. Stokes, previously classified G-Shine, or a gang member. We don’t know if this ties into the active dispute. Reach out to our informants in the area, see if there’s a tie-in to this. Fairview Homes, we will ride by and monitor that location during our tour of duty.
JELANI COBB: Like the rest of the police department, the gang unit is predominately black and Latino, and so are most of the victims and perpetrators.
RADIO: Let us know when you’re ready.
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: We’re good.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right, son.
JELANI COBB: On one night, I rode with Ricardo Reillo, a former truck driver, and Wilberto Ruiz, an Air Force vet. Both are from Newark. The officers say they’re out here hunting for guns, drugs and intelligence about gang rivalries.
OFFICER: You guys don’t know anything about the shootings going on down here?
MAN: I know nothing.
JELANI COBB: As we roll up on one of the worst streets in Newark, a guy starts running.
OFFICER: We got to go! We got to go!
WOMAN: Those are my kids!
JELANI COBB: It’s just the start of a busy night—
OFFICER: Bunch of heroin, bricks, bunch of marijuana—
JELANI COBB: --one of many we spent with the unit.
OFFICER: See your hands. See your hands.
WOMAN: She lives here. They are my visitors.
OFFICER: [frisking man] Got something in your pants, man?
YOUNG MAN: No, sir.
JELANI COBB: I’m struck by what passes for normal out here.
YOUNG MAN: I don’t have nothing, sir.
OFFICER: I thought I felt something.
JELANI COBB: They call what they’re doing “field inquiries,” basically stopping and frisking.
[on camera] How does the decision get made to say, “OK, we need to stop that person,” or “We need to do a field inquiry with that person”?
Det. RICARDO REILLO, Newark PD: You as an officer, you eventually build certain skills. You start learning how to read people, their body language. If one person won’t take his hands out of his pockets, starts pulling away from you, starts walking away from you once he notices our police presence, obviously, if he starts running, [laughs] you know, there’s a reason behind it, usually.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ, Newark PD: You know more or less—when you pass them and they give you that look, you know.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] Cops are supposed to have what’s called reasonable suspicion to stop someone, not just a hunch. But that leaves room for discretion.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: We just want to make sure you’re all right.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: They respect us. We respect them. We treat them fair. We have a rapport with them. They know what we’re out here for, and they don’t give us—most of the time, they don’t give us no problems.
TEENAGE BOY: He’s only 10 years old, son. My little brother, yo.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Relax, my man. How old are you?
TEENAGE BOY: Thirteen.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: All right. So what you—
TEENAGE BOY: My little brother is only 10 years old.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Keep walking. Keep walking.
That’s what we have to deal with in the city of Newark, 13-year-olds talking back to police.
JELANI COBB: [on camera] Do you think he was justified to be worried about his brother?
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Oh, absolutely. But he sees who we are. We’re police. He shouldn’t be afraid of police. The young kids usually have all the weapons because the adults already know that it’s a juvenile, so they’re really not going to get any hard time.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] For these officers, it seems like almost everything and everyone looks suspicious.
OFFICER: You got no ID?
JELANI COBB: The reasonable suspicion in this stop? They say the guy clutched his waistband as he was riding his bike.
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: You got CDs in your waistband, man?
KID: Yeah, I just bought them.
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: You know what people think?
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: You got a gun. Don’t be putting them in your front. People think you got a gun.
OFFICER: Enjoy your movies, sir.
JELANI COBB: I can’t help but think of what the Justice Department found here, that the Newark PD was stopping people without legal justification 75 percent of the time.
OFFICER: You guys, you know, there’s a lot of shootings going on lately.
JELANI COBB: I’m starting to question what the gang unit’s doing. Then it happens. Two guys start running as the caravan pulls up.
OFFICER: Drop the fucking gun, motherfucker! Drop it! Drop it! Drop it! On the other side, he’s got a gun! Other side, Cee-lo! Get it! Get it! Get it! Stop, I’ll shoot!
SUSPECT: I don’t got a gun!
OFFICER: I’m going to shoot! Get down!
SUSPECT: I don’t got no gun.
SUSPECT: I don’t got no gun.
OFFICER: Turn around, turn around!
SUSPECT: Look, I don’t got no gun.
OFFICER: Turn around!
SUSPECT: I don’t got no gun!
OFFICER: In that other yard.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: No, check that yard.
OFFICER: Put your hand behind your back, man. He’s bleeding. You want to be careful.
OFFICER: I don’t give a fuck. You almost got shot, you stupid fuck!
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: Come on man, get up!
OFFICER: You got to go around to that alley.
OFFICER: You almost got shot!
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: What the fuck is wrong with you, man? If you would’ve turned back with that gun on me, your whole world would’ve changed.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Here’s the weapon.
JELANI COBB: Almost every night we’re out with the gang unit, they get a gun off the streets. There’s a moment of pride.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: The most important thing is, another weapon’s off the street. Everybody’s safe. Everybody’s accounted for.
JELANI COBB: And then they get back to business. Another call, two kids running.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Come here! Stop running! Turn around!
SUSPECT: Come on! I ain’t got nothing.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Why are you running?
SUSPECT: I was scared. I didn’t know what was going on.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Scared of what!
SUSPECT: I didn’t know what was going on.
JELANI COBB: It’s clear to me that there’s no trust. That’s what happens when everyone assumes the worst of everyone else.
OFFICER: Why were you clutching? You stupid? You get a rookie cop, you’ll get shot. He’s clutching the whole way.
JELANI COBB: They find a small bag of cocaine on one guy but nothing on the other one.
At the end of the night, I talked to Officers Ruiz and Reillo about what I’d been seeing.
[on camera] I’m just going to ask you straight up. Is it possible to make the communities that we’re talking about safe while respecting people’s constitutional rights?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. Without a doubt. We go out there every night.
JELANI COBB: But the DoJ doesn’t feel like that’s what’s happened here.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: That’s an opinion. I mean, we go out there. It’s not any disrespect to anybody out there. It’s not about race, you know, or violating their rights. It has nothing to do with that. We have a job to do. We live in this city. We care about this city. This is what we do.
JELANI COBB: I have to tell you something, though, right? So I grew up in Queens, right, and on—my first experience with the police was that I was thrown up against a mailbox just like this one. I was coming home from a baseball game, had my uniform on, was carrying a bat and a glove. The guy said it was a crime that was committed, and so on, and I was kind of, like, “I’m coming from a game.”
The next experience I had was a few years later. I was walking with a group of friends of mine, and a cop pulled a gun on us and told us to get on the sidewalk.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: He pulled out his weapon to make you comply with whatever he needed you to do at the time, for his safety and other officers’ safety, even for your own safety.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: You could point your weapon at somebody and give them commands to comply. Once you feel like the threat’s neutralized, like, you know, they’re complying with you, then you put your weapon away, and you know—
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Have a normal interaction.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Yeah, have a normal interaction.
JELANI COBB: But can you really have a normal interaction if someone’s pointed a gun at you? I don’t—I don’t—
Det. RICARDO REILLO: You got to look at it our way. I mean, they say there was five to six males and one of them possibly has a weapon. What would you do as a police officer if you encounter a group of males, one supposedly has a weapon on him? How would you confront the situation?
JELANI COBB: I’m not sure. But that’s why I asked the question about can you do this—can this be done in a way that still respects people’s rights? I think that’s the question that everybody is wondering about policing.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Listen, we try to go out there and respect everybody’s rights.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Exactly.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: We’re not out here saying, “Hey, we’re going to violate this person’s rights.” That’s not what we’re here for. I tell you, our main objective is to go home at the end of the night. We have families. We have children. We have wives. We have girlfriends. We have sisters. We have mothers. We have fathers.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] The gang unit is supposed to write up reports for all the stops and arrests they make. I thought these might help me get more insight into how they justify them, so I filed a public records request. But I was told it would take a while.
NEWSCASTER: New Jersey, a state under siege—
JELANI COBB: Questions about the Newark police go back decades.
NEWSCASTER: This is the west side, where it all began Sunday morning—
JELANI COBB: In the summer of 1967, two white cops beat up a black cab driver, and the city exploded.
NEWSCASTER: Race riots rock New Jersey’s largest city for five consecutive days and nights.
JELANI COBB: Newark cops, state police and the National Guard were accused of using unjustified force to put down the riots.
NEWSCASTER: Sniper fire from open windows, scores of police, troopers, guardsmen and civilians are wounded.
JELANI COBB: By the time it was over, a white cop, a white fireman and 24 black civilians were dead.
Back then, there was nothing the federal government could do to fix a troubled police department.
NEWSCASTER: Our top story this morning comes from Los Angeles following—
JELANI COBB: That changed in the early 1990s after four white cops were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
NEWSCASTER: --in the wake of violence spawned by acquittals in the Rodney King beating trial—
NEWSCASTER: --a city under smoke, a city that’s face to face under siege—
JELANI COBB: The Justice Department was given the power to investigate local police departments, and if necessary, impose reforms.
NEWSCASTER: The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division says the Newark Police Department needs a major overhaul—
JELANI COBB: Newark is one of 34 departments since then the DoJ has ordered to make reforms.
PROTESTER: Stop police brutality! Stop police brutality!
NEWSCASTER: --police corruption that has permeated the department—
JELANI COBB: The investigation here began after years of complaints about police misconduct from local activists and the ACLU. The Justice Department issued a 49-page report.
PAUL FISHMAN, U.S. Attorney: What we found was that there were far too many uses of force that were excessive, they weren’t appropriately documented, and then they certainly weren’t investigated well at the end of the day.
As a result of the many, many, many complaints that we saw over a six-year period, there was only one complaint of unjustified use of force that was sustained by the police department.
And so one of the things that we’re going to do now is retrain the police entirely, getting training on force, getting training on—on stops and arrests, having the police department in Newark think differently about how it does its job and how it relates to the people that it serves.
ANNOUNCER: From WBGO, this is “Newark Today,” our monthly look at what’s happening in and around New Jersey’s largest city.
JELANI COBB: The DoJ’s actions are big news in Newark.
MICHAEL HILL, Host: And welcome to “Newark Today.” We have some pretty weighty topics to get to tonight.
JELANI COBB: I sat in on a local radio show where the new mayor, Ras Baraka, talked about the DoJ findings with the man he picked to help change the department, Eugene Venable.
MICHAEL HILL: Were you surprised at these findings?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: No. I mean, I grew up in Newark. I know that there are police officers who have done things they have no business doing. I know that. I’ve seen them. Hanging out, you know, with a lot of guys, you got searched, you got stopped, you got put on the wall, you got put on the ground, and I know how that feels. It’s traumatizing.
And being black in America, I know that our relationship with the police department has been untenable at best. So it is not surprising in the fact that he will find that police officers have violated people’s rights, their constitutional rights in a community. The only difference is now we’re going to do something about it.
JELANI COBB: I’ve actually been friends with Ras since we were student activists at Howard University in the late 1980s. And I’d been a supporter of his. His father was the radical poet Amiri Baraka, whose words propelled the black power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
AMIRI BARAKA: We are communities looking into the sky for a moment on the clear way to liberation. We are cities readying brothers to lead us. We are a nation—
JELANI COBB: During the ‘67 riots, he was beaten severely by Newark cops.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Today, I feel so good that I am from Newark, a boy from Clinton Ave. and 10th Street—
JELANI COBB: Ras himself spent years protesting the police. But as mayor, he’s trying to bridge the gap between the cops and the community.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Everybody has to have a responsibility. The mayor has a responsibility, yes. The police have a responsibility, yes. We all have a responsibility. And the question is, “Are you living up to your responsibility?” God bless you all! Godspeed to you all!
JELANI COBB: He’s been pushing to set up community oversight of the police, and he’s also been making himself a regular presence with the cops.
I met up with Ras one day while he was touring some precincts.
[on camera] So we’ve been out with the gang unit. They’re going and around getting guns. Getting illegal guns requires you rolling up on folks. How does that happen without being the same sorts of policing that people are protesting about?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Intelligence, who is actually somebody you should probably stop, and somebody who’s just Ms. Martha’s kid going to the store with his hat to the back, right?
So I mean, that’s—intelligence gets you that information, not just, like, random stops. That’s not how you police. I mean, that right there is racism.
JELANI COBB: But these are black and brown cops.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Yeah, so what?
JELANI COBB: Diverse police officer—police force.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: It’s not the who did it that make it racism. To me, it is the fact that, overwhelmingly, it happens to one specific group of people is what makes it racism.
JELANI COBB: Is there a point where you look around and go, “This is going to be even harder than I thought it would be”?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Oh, yeah. It ain’t get this way in five years or ten years, and it’s not going to take five or ten years to get out of it. I mean, you got generational poverty, generational unemployment. These buildings been vacant for 30, 40 years. So they didn’t just get vacant when I became the mayor.
At the end of the day, there’s no tax base like the way you need it. And you’re trying to run the state’s largest city in those kinds of conditions. This is what we’re dealing with, man.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] I followed him into the communications center, where they’ve been having a lot of trouble fielding 911 calls.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: System still down?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Yeah.
OPERATOR: Yes. It’s crazy.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Which one of these computers don’t work?
OPERATOR: They’re not up. They’re just not up. [crosstalk]
OPERATOR: [phone rings] Newark Police, operator 291. How may I help you?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: All of those computers over there, they should be—every time I come in here, they ain’t never on. We put more people in here, they could be on those computers over there. They don’t work, though, right?
LIEUTENANT: They’re down right now.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: What you mean, they’re down? So you could turn it on, and it’ll work if we turned it on?
LIEUTENANT: I’m not sure, but the last I heard, it wasn’t working.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Are you saying it’s not working, or it’s down? Which one?
LIEUTENANT: It’s down. It’s not working.
POLICE OFFICIAL: So now the calls that come in now, what’s—take me through the process now.
JELANI COBB: [on camera] So how long were y’all down?
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Friday. But the system is messed up for a long time. And these supervisors, they don’t know what’s going on. They’re not really supervising this stuff like they should.
LIEUTENANT: They’ll receive the calls. They’re prioritized by color. The higher priority calls go on a pink card. They’ll put the assignments on here. We have a runner who will take the card over here—
Mayor RAS BARAKA: A lot of people think response time sometimes has to do with the police not responding, but a lot of it has to do with communications, when they call the police and who can pick up the phone and be able to get to an officer, all that stuff like that. The first part of it is trying to get this communications office correct. And right now, it’s not where it should be.
LIEUTENANT: Then the runner will take it from here, walk it over here—
Mayor RAS BARAKA: We just got to run this thing efficiently and make sure all of the equipment works. Like, Monday, they’re going to put in a new system because right now, they’re doing all this stuff manually.
LIEUTENANT: The runner, when she comes back over here, the runner will take the card, bring it back over here—
Mayor RAS BARAKA: What we are going to do is get these police officers out of here.
JELANI COBB: So they’d be out on the street.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Yeah. I don’t think any police officer should be in here. I think it’s a waste. You got people with guns in here. I don’t know what they—I don’t think anybody’s coming to rob this place. [laughs] So I mean—
JELANI COBB: Somebody robs this place, you’d have big problems.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Yeah, man. It’s, like, come on. It’s, like, a thousand cops in here, man. There’s too many damn cops in here. This stuff is a disaster, man.
JELANI COBB: Everywhere we went with the mayor, I could see his frustration, even with his hand-picked police director.
EUGENE VENABLE, Police Director, Newark PD: We spent more money last week than we ever have. We spent $140,000 in overtime. In every category that we have, we was down in crime because of the expenditures that we put out.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: We were down in shootings this Thanksgiving as from last Thanksgiving?
EUGENE VENABLE: Yes, by one.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: By one.
EUGENE VENABLE: By one, and we was down by one murder.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: So we had to spend a hundred-something thousand dollars to get down one?
EUGENE VENABLE: Yes, Mayor.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: That’s not pretty efficient, man. I just think that we need better intelligence, and it’s not working. Instead of targeting random individual people, hoping we, you know, get somebody, we target individuals who we know are known violent felons who’ve done crimes and are involved in this kind of stuff.
EUGENE VENABLE: I agree with you. It’s the intelligence that we need. We don’t have the intelligence. None of us can really figure out how the intelligence of which people are going to commit crimes, murders. And we need to do better at that.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] One murder in particular was bothering the mayor. A week earlier, a young man died in a gang-related shootout across the street from the police headquarters.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Did any police officers from the precinct come outside when that thing was going on?
EUGENE VENABLE: I saw them come outside.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: They came outside?
EUGENE VENABLE: Yeah. But they didn’t get out there instantaneous as the shootings had happened. Those people that’s in the precinct, they don’t have a vest on, Mayor. They don’t have anything.
So if there’s shots fired outside—I mean, I know they’re going to risk their lives. However, they’re not going to go to the extreme where I’m going to just run outside and they got to find out what’s going on. Oh, there’s somebody out there shooting. So then they run outside.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Oh. Wow! They started shooting on Madison Avenue back and forth. They came all the way down the street. The guy emptied his gun out. Another guy shot him. There’s a series of bullets. They’re sitting in the precinct. Nobody heard any of that. You’re saying they sat in there because they were afraid?
EUGENE VENABLE: No, I’m not saying that.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Then what are you saying?
EUGENE VENABLE: I’m talking about whether they were on the scene instantaneously to stop these guys from doing the shooting.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: OK. Let’s stop. Let’s stop. All right.
JELANI COBB: Two weeks later, Ras demoted Venable and put him in charge of the communications center.
Sgt. JOE CONZENTINO: [throwing a football in the parking lot] Stick to police work.
JELANI COBB: A world away from that conference room, the gang unit was still trying to make a dent in all the shootings. We went out with Tremayne Phillips, a second generation Newark cop, and Nate Lhowe, a New Jersey state parole officer assigned to the unit.
Right out of the gate, they get a tip.
Ofc. TREMAYNE PHILLIPS: One of our guys said they might have heard info related to someone having a handgun. So we’ll come up with a plan.
Ofc. KENNETH GAULETTE: Yeah, black male, bluejean jacket. He’s on Nutman and walking toward New Street, so he’ll probably be on New Street.
OFFICER: All right.
OFFICER: Show time.
OFFICER: Who’s that out front?
OFFICER: See him?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: He’s running!
OFFICERS: Hands up! Drop it! We got the weapon! We got the weapon! Cuff him! Cuff him! Cuff him, and that’s it.
SUSPECT: I can’t breathe!
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right, all right, all right!
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Clear, weapon clear.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Bring him back. Bring him back. All right sir, you dropped a gun, OK?
OFFICER: Do you have a license for that gun, sir?
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Check his car. Make sure his car is fine.
OFFICER: Yeah, he says he’s good.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right.
Det. RICARDO REILLO: Six.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: One was in the chamber, right? So the gun was ready to fire?
NATE LHOWE, NJ State Parole Board: Just in the past month, we’ve gotten numerous guns off that same block, same area right there.
JELANI COBB: Intelligence pays off. But later that evening, I see what happens without it.
NATE LHOWE: Yo.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Yo.
YOUNG MAN: Don’t touch me, brother. Don’t even touch me. Hey, hold on! Hold up, hold up, hold up, hold up, hold up!
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: What’re y’all doing?
YOUNG MAN: I’m not doing nothing. I’m not doing nothing! Come on, man!
OFFICER: Stop. Listen, stop, stop. Stop, stop.
NATE LHOWE: You want to pull away from me, man, you’re going to get hurt.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Stop resisting.
YOUNG MAN: Sir, I did not.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right, just cuff him for safety.
YOUNG MAN: I did not. I did not resist y’all. I swear to God I did not resist y’all.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right, sir.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Cuff him for safety.
NATE LHOWE: I don’t have cuffs, though.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Cuff him for safety.
NATE LHOWE: My cuffs are on the other guy. I don’t have cuffs.
YOUNG MAN: I didn’t do nothing!
OFFICER: Stop. Just stop, sir.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Just stop.
NATE LHOWE: Sir, you’re not under arrest. This is just for your safety and our safety, OK?
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: All right, bring him up to his feet.
NATE LHOWE: Stand up, man. Why are you acting like a jerk, bro? We stopped you to talk to you.
YOUNG MAN: A jerk? Are you fucking kidding me?
NATE LHOWE: You can’t pull away from a cop.
YOUNG MAN: I didn’t pull away from nobody, bro.
NATE LHOWE: Yes, you did, sir, because you pulled away from me.
YOUNG MAN: Bro, I said don’t touch me, please. Because y’all pulling up, what the fuck did I do? Nothing. I’m walking home.
NATE LHOWE: We’ll explain everything to you—
YOUNG MAN: You don’t even know what the hell’s going—I’m going home.
NATE LHOWE: Yeah, and that’s why we’re stopping to talk to you.
YOUNG MAN: I am going home.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Listen, listen, right here, right here-
NATE LHOWE: When you start pulling away, it’s on.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Right here, right here, I’m talking.
YOUNG MAN: I didn’t pull away from nobody!
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Shh. Look, we ain’t going to do that.
YOUNG MAN: My fault, man.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: If you want to do that, we could do that.
YOUNG MAN: Do what?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Listen. Where you live at? Do you understand the reason why you’re cuffed?
YOUNG MAN: No.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: All right. Now, when we came and approached you, what did you do? You automatically pushed away from us.
YOUNG MAN: No, I said, “Don’t touch me,” and kept walking.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Listen. Listen, you’re making us think you have a weapon, the way you ran away.
YOUNG MAN: Y’all are worried about me? Oh, man.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: OK? Understand that.
YOUNG MAN: OK.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Listen, just relax. Relax.
OFFICER: You got it. You got it? Find out who he is.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Turn around. We’re going to walk, OK? My man, it’s not wise to pull away from us like that, you hear?
YOUNG MAN: Not my fault, man.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: All right.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Relax. You were drinking today?
YOUNG MAN: Yes, I was, actually.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Let me ask you, if you were to drink less, would this ever happen?
YOUNG MAN: I only had one beer, and yes it would have because we see so much violence going on in the hoods right now. And—and not just the hoods, everywhere. You know, this—this—this—the violence from police is crazy right now. And—and the way y’all approached me, all I was doing was walking home. If y’all would have said, “Young man, what are you doing?” I would have said, “I’m going home.”
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: So? You see how fast that was?
YOUNG MAN: I don’t care about—don’t—do not stereotype because that’s what y’all did to me.
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: We have an arrest.
YOUNG MAN: Against who?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Him!
NATE LHOWE: The guy that’s right behind you.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: They’re narcotics.
YOUNG MAN: Who?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: The dude you was walking with!
YOUNG MAN: No! What do you mean, he had drugs on him? No, he didn’t!
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Yes, he did.
YOUNG MAN: What do you mean? He was with me all day!
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: He’s in the car with us.
NATE LHOWE: Well, he has drugs today.
YOUNG MAN: Come on, bro. Come on, bro. I don’t know what y’all trying to pull. Y’all ain’t find no drugs on me, right?
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: That’s why you free to go. That’s why you’re not in cuffs!
Ofc. CARLOS ALVARADO: Listen—go ahead. Have a good day, sir.
YOUNG MAN: Y’all be easy. And be wise about your choices, brother.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Take that same advice, sir.
NATE LHOWE: Thank you.
As soon as I approached him, he was immediately hostile. So I basically wanted to just control his hand in case—you know, fearing that he might have had a weapon or something, or you know, just to basically get a little physical control over him.
And at that point, he pulled away from me, so I decided to take him to the ground and just him under control and determine what was going on with him. I didn’t deal with the other kid, but it looked like the other kid had—was arrested for possession of CDS, so I mean, they were involved in something. I mean, it might have been fairly minor, but it was something.
JELANI COBB: While the officers seemed certain about that stop, I remained troubled by it. I’ve requested the report on the incident, and also wanted to know what the unit’s supervisor, Sergeant Conzentino, thought of how it went down.
[on camera] I wanted to kind of go through something that we shot the other day. And it’s of an encounter—
Sgt. CONZENTINO: With the gang unit or—
JELANI COBB: With the gang unit, with the gang unit.
OFFICER: Yo! Yo!
YOUNG MAN: Don’t touch me, bro. Don’t touch me. Hold up!
OFFICER: Get on the fucking ground!
YOUNG MAN: Hold up! Hold up! Hold up! I’m not doing nothing! I’m not doing nothing! Come on, man! Come on, come on.
OFFICERS: Stop. Stop. Stop. You want to pull away from me man? You’re going to get hurt. Stop.
OFFICER: Cuff him for safety.
YOUNG MAN: I didn’t do nothing.
OFFICER: Stop. Just stop, sir. Just stop.
NATE LHOWE: Sir, you’re not under arrest. This is just for your safety and our safety, OK?
YOUNG MAN: I’m going home.
NATE LHOWE: Yeah, that’s why we’re stopping you to talk to you.
YOUNG MAN: I am going home!
NATE LHOWE: When you start pulling away—
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Right here, right here, I’m talking to you.
YOUNG MAN: I didn’t pull away from nobody!
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: Look, we ain’t going to do that.
JELANI COBB: So was that a good stop, not a good stop?
Sgt. JOSEPH CONZENTINO: You know what? It starts at the point where they encounter him. I would have to read the report to see exactly how that unfolded, but I understand that by perception, by perception only, that would look like it was a bad stop—by perception.
JELANI COBB: I think what disturbed me most about that video was that I think if I had been in that position, I would have pulled away, too, almost by human instinct. If you’re surrounded by people who are coming at you in a rush, you’re going to back up. And that was kind of seen as justification for—
Sgt. JOSEPH CONZENTINO: See, I understand what you’re saying, but this is where we differ. See, my thing is—and again, if I get stopped by the police and I am a police officer, I listen. I routinely put my hand, if I’m in a car, up on the roof. I take all the precautions, too.
But in that situation there or in any situation, I think I would have complied. I understand what your instincts are, but when you say you’re being surrounded, you’re being surrounded by officers that you can clearly see are officers. I don’t believe it had to go there, if he would’ve just—
JELANI COBB: But see, this is the thing, like, the key difference, which is that, you know, kind of being surrounded by police is not a position in which you feel like you’re safe for someone like me.
Sgt. JOSEPH CONZENTINO: I understand that.
JELANI COBB: I would say, you know., “I don’t know what’s happening here. I don’t know the agenda of these people is.” I know I’m surrounded.
The idea of complying is, like, sure, that may be your second thought. Your immediate thought is, you know, “I’m in jeopardy.” Like, “What’s happening here?” I think that, fundamentally, the difference is, do you—if you’re surrounded by police officers, do you feel more safe or less safe than you were two minutes earlier?
Sgt. JOSEPH CONZENTINO: And what needs to be is that you need to feel like you’re safe and that you can explain, and then the situation is over. It’s not that way right now.
JELANI COBB: In that moment you’re actually about to make a stop on this person, where is your head?
Sgt. JOSEPH CONZENTINO: I’ll admit there’s times when I have fear. And I think fear is probably one of your best friends. And there are times when you hear gunshots, and we have to run to those shots. Most people can’t equate or understand what’s that’s about.
Your heart rate, when it starts to increase, and you know, you’re running, and then you’re going to encounter someone and you may ultimately have to wrestle with that person. You got some bad people out there that have no problem going to the mat with a police officer and trying to take their gun and maybe even using it against them. So I don’t think anybody could ever understand the stress of the situation.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] I’ve heard about the stress of the job over and over again. Many cops today feel like they’re under siege from all sides, especially James Stewart, the president of Newark’s largest police union.
JAMES STEWART, Newark Fraternal Order of Police: I’m a fourth generation police officer here in Newark. My great-grandfather started in 1890, my grandfather, my father, who retired in 2003, and now me. And I’m in my 21st year. I don’t know that too many more guys want their family members to follow in their footsteps the way this profession’s going, and specifically the way things are going here in Newark.
Somewhere along the line, we have become the bad guy. Everybody’s against us. You know, “F the police.” That’s become the way of the community now. You know, I mean, who is the guy that’s going to say, “I want to go be a Newark cop”? They have minimal starting pay. We’re going to take away half of your benefits. We have our own administration against us here. And you got the Department of Justice overseeing your department.
Who’s going to want the job? After Taco Bell says no and after Sears says no and McDonald’s won’t have you, well, maybe the Newark Police Department is hiring. You know, let me go see what they’ve got to offer.
JELANI COBB: What do you think the prospects for reform are here?
JAMES STEWART: I know it’s a necessity. I don’t know where the problem started, but there is an animosity or a lack of trust. You know, as soon as there’s any sort of physical force exerted by a police officer, everybody’s got their cellphones out. You know, they want to catch us doing something wrong.
You know, no one’s jumping in to help us subdue this guy that just robbed a woman down the street, but they want to catch us doing something wrong.
And when you got the cop out there in the street facing all this negative opposition, day in and day out, does there come a point when the police officer’s going to say, “Hey, you know what? Maybe he doesn’t have to go to jail.” You know, “Maybe I’ll take the path of least resistance. Maybe I’ll put the blinders on as I’m driving by the corner where the 10 guys are hanging out.”
You know, is that what the community wants, too?
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] I can’t imagine too many folks in Newark would just want the police to stand down, but I did want to talk to people here about how they feel about the department. So I went to visit an old friend of mine, Ryan Haygood.
[on camera] Sir!
RYAN HAYGOOD, NJ Institute for Social Justice: How’re you doing?
JELANI COBB: Good to see you.
RYAN HAYGOOD: Can’t believe you’re actually in a Mini Cooper.
JELANI COBB: I know! That’s me. That was me, the Mini Cooper out there, yeah. I love that thing.
[voice-over] He’s an attorney and a long-time resident who hosts a regular block watch meeting of his neighbors. He invited some of them over to meet with me.
[on camera] Were you all surprised to find that the police department was under investigation the Department of Justice?
RAY TIDWELL, Newark Resident: No, I wasn’t.
JELANI COBB: Why not?
RAY TIDWELL: Because I know the history of the Newark Police Department. I’m 65. So I’m probably a littler older or might be the oldest thing in this room. And the Newark Police Department—and we’re talking about the ‘70s and I guess the ‘60s. They treated African-Americans very unfair, truly unfair.
There’s a culture, and particularly do to with white policemen. They see a young black man or black men as thugs. For me, in order to survive, you have to know the system. There’s certain clothes I won’t wear. I will never fit the profile. I taught my son and my daughter that.
Rev. ERIC BECKHAM, Pastor, Clear View Baptist Church: It depends on the socioeconomic or the profile of the individuals in how you experience the police. I certainly believe that there is an expectation that the police are going to crack down on the level of murders, the violence, the robberies, that are taking place.
STACIE ALVAREZ, Elementary School Teacher: I teach 1st grade, so 7-year-olds. And so I have little boys in my classroom who are like, “Oh, no, I don’t like the police.” They’re saying to me that, you know, “Well, the police came in my house and they got my dad, or they stripped someone from my house,” and it’s like a violent encounter with the police. When 7-year-olds have a repulsive response to the police, you have a problem.
JELANI COBB: We’ve been out on patrol with some officers who are making a major initiative to get guns off the street. And you know, they’re kind of stopping people. They’re pulling over—frisking people, in some instances. And I have to say that what I saw was very disturbing. But this is what people have said is necessary in order to get guns off the street.
RYAN HAYGOOD: I don’t see an inconsistency with respecting people’s constitutional rights and protecting public safety. In our area, we do have neighbors who have been victimized in violent ways by crime. But it doesn’t mean that police officers can, in three out of four of the stops, violate people’s constitutional rights.
And police officers, as they’ve been under investigation in Newark for many years, when they were violating rights, the city wasn’t safer. So it’s not the case to say that if you violate constitutional rights, it’s a safer society.
FLORIA GRAHAM, Newark Resident: But that’s the position that they put us in, our communities in. They make it seem like, “Well, this is the way we have to do it.” We know it’s not true. I mean, if you watch Cops, the television show, you see white people going off on police officers, and nothing happens to these people!
And it’s really bad that we are in a position where you say, “Well, Mother, do you want this to raise your child in a safer neighborhood?” And what do you think we’re going to say? “Do whatever you can do to keep my neighborhood safe.” It’s bad when they put us in a position to say, “Do you want this, or do you want that?”
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] In Newark, you’re reminded of that bind all too often on the local news. A couple of months after I was out with them, the Newark gang unit was a top story.
NEWSCASTER: Eighth grader Jamod Watkins was allegedly assaulted by undercover officers in Newark, officers his attorney says failed to initially identify themselves.
ROSEMARIE ARNOLD, Attorney: These police officers knocked him down and grabbed his left arm and pulled it behind his back with such force that it cracked it in half.
JELANI COBB: It turns out one of the officers is Wilberto Ruiz.
Det. WILBERTO RUIZ: They get confused whether we’re actually criminals. But they also see us as the stickup guys. “I thought you guys were going to rob me.”
JELANI COBB: The department is investigating the allegations, but he has already been disciplined for not filing a report about the incident. We also found out that another officer we’d met in the gang unit, Kenneth Gaulette, was suspended and charged for allegedly coercing a woman to perform oral sex in exchange for leniency. He’s pled not guilty.
ANNOUNCER: Let’s give a hand for our mayor, Ras J. Baraka.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Thank you. Twenty percent of the neighborhoods are experiencing the majority of the violence in the city. So if you lived in that 20 percent area, it feels like hell to you.
JELANI COBB: Over the past two years, Ras has been struggling to clean up the department. After demoting his first police director, he hired back a man who had led the department a decade earlier, Anthony Ambrose.
ANTHONY AMBROSE: --fearing retaliation. I think that if you see something, say something. If you are a witness—
JELANI COBB: I was surprised that Ras turned to the old guard of the Newark police.
[on camera] So in the midst of reform, you brought in a public safety director from a previous time in Newark. He’s been here when, you know, many of the problems occurred. And so I didn’t understand how that loaned itself to reform.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: I think our problem is larger than just an individual, though, so it’s a systemic problem that we have. I think that he had a demeanor, the respect of the people in the department. And we—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.
Unfortunately, it’s not a very easy process. It’s difficult. Any change is difficult, you know, especially in an entrenched institution like the police department.
JELANI COBB: We talked with a lot of people on the police force who don’t really seem to see a problem here.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: Sure. You know, it’s a fresh wound. It’s, like—it’s not—I mean, there’s going to be a level of denial. You’re talking about people who have to admit that there was some wrongdoing. 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 to prevent this?
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] Ras says that change is already starting to happen. So I went for one last ride-along with a cop I was told represents a different kind of policing that’s not just about making arrests but building trust and relationships.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS, Newark PD: We’re going to go over to Riverview Court. For the past few months, there has been a spike in violent crime, specifically shootings. We had a few murders within the complex. So we can start gathering up intelligence.
JELANI COBB: Sgt. Rasheen Peppers works in the criminal intelligence unit. When we arrived, there was a vigil for a man who was murdered the day before, and Peppers worked the crowd for leads.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: And you can see just being here for a few seconds, how because of relationships, people-- “Well, Peppers is here.” You know, “Peppers, you can talk to her.”
JELANI COBB: After just a few minutes, a woman agreed to speak to him in private about what she’d seen.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: She gave me everything from what happened. She says, “I was there. I was right next to the person. This is what took place.”
You just don’t get that from being a cop. You get that from relationships. If I wasn’t a guy who was part of the community and I only came out just to do policing, right, that might be an issue. And so I’m trusted to tell me this information. So you have to be a part of the community. You have to be a stakeholder in the community.
JELANI COBB: [on camera] I mean, I think that’s notable to me because that’s so distinct from what the Department of Justice report has said about the Newark Police Department. What’s in that report and the Department of Justice investigation is not policing that looks like that.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: OK, and I agree, all right? What’s in the report, no, it shows that, you know, we were violating people’s rights, you know? And granted, some officers were.
JELANI COBB: So what do you think are the biggest challenges to creating the type of police force that you are describing in Newark?
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: Changing the culture. That’s the biggest challenge, getting officers to—to buy in, to there’s a new way of policing. The policing has evolved. That’s the hardest part, you know, and that’s with anyone that’s been stuck doing one thing one way for 20 years, saying, “Look, this is how it should be, we’ve done it wrong, now we can get it right.”
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] We drove on to a different neighborhood where Peppers was looking for intel on yet another murder.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: We’re going to go up here, and they had a murder yesterday of a female, early 40s. She was shot in the head. She just had her earphones on. She didn’t even see it coming. But at the end of the day, it could be our mom, you know, our sisters. It could be any of us.
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] But while he tries to work with the community, the community doesn’t always want to work with him.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: Hey—hey, what’s up, man? Can I talk to you for a second?
YOUNG RESIDENTS: Fuck the cops! Go ahead with that shit! Go ahead with that shit. Go ahead with that shit.
Sgt. RASHEEN PEPPERS: Now, one reason I’m glad that happened is because, you know, that goes to show you how they don’t want you—there’s those don’t want you in the community, right? There’s those who think it’s uncool to speak to the cops, but it’s cool to have shrines like this up and down a block. You know, this to them is cool, OK? And you know, how do we change that mentality?
JELANI COBB: [voice-over] After spending a year in and out of Newark, there are no easy answers. Recently, the gang unit we’d spent so much time with was disbanded. Most of the guys were put on desk jobs.
And more changes are coming. The city and the Department of Justice finally reached an agreement that mandates new policies and training, requirements for body cameras and standards for punishing officers for misconduct.
The DoJ also demanded some form of civilian oversight of the department, which Ras had been pushing for, too. In March, the city council voted on his plan to create a panel of civilians with the power to investigate cops.
MILDRED CRUMP, Council President: I am going to ask the long line of citizens who wish to speak in support of the ordinance itself, would you please raise your hands? Is there anyone who is opposed?
UDI OFER, ACLU of New Jersey: For 50 years, the people of Newark have been calling for the creation of a Civilian Complaint Review Board. For 50 years, those calls have gone unanswered, until tonight. [applause]
CLERK: Motion to close the public hearing and adopt. [calls the roll] President Crump?
MILDRED CRUMP: Unanimously, yes.
JELANI COBB: The hope is to overcome a historic lack of transparency, something I’ve gotten a taste of myself. When the department responded to my request for records from the nights we’d been with the gang unit, they shed little light on what we’d seen. They gave me some arrest reports, but nothing related to the stops, the frisks, or even the incident when the young man was thrown to the ground.
First, they said they couldn’t find the reports. Then they said they couldn’t give them to us because of privacy concerns and ongoing investigations.
Reforming the police in Newark is clearly going to be a long haul, and the problems go beyond the police alone. But Ras has no choice but to believe that change is possible.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: [to graduates] This city is moving forward with a whole different police culture, and you are the beginning of that.
JELANI COBB: A belief he wants to instill in this graduating class of 43 Newark rookies.
Mayor RAS BARAKA: People begin to believe that their community is safe simply because you showed up. Where you walk, justice walks with you. When you walk in a neighborhood, goodness follows you wherever you go. And show up clean so we can get rid of this cloud over our head of wrongdoing.
You’re the first class, my class. And those who come after you are going to follow your lead. The question is, where are you going to take them? [applause]
CITY CLERK: Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Newark Police Department.