April 25, 2021


Newark cops, with reform, didn't fire a single shot in 2020 (Tom Moran, Jan 11, 2021, Star Ledger)

Larry Hamm, the godfather of police protests in Newark as head of the People's Organization for Progress, agreed. "Police brutality is still a problem," he says. "But it's fair to say the consent decree has had a real impact."

The reforms are the results of a federal consent decree, the billy club used by the Department of Justice after a long investigation concluded in 2014 revealed the rot that had infested the department for decades. It found a rogue department that tolerated widespread brutality and racism, with no accountability, and zero training on how to de-escalate confrontations with civilians.

"You had a law enforcement agency with no training about how to enforce the law," says Peter Harvey, the former state attorney general who is overseeing the implementation of the consent decree.

When Paul Fishman, the former U.S. Attorney, began his investigation in 2011, he found the department's culture was broken in almost every way. A reflexive resort to violence. Racial bias in stops and enforcement. And an internal affairs bureau so corrupted that it sustained just one complaint of police brutality over five years.

"The use of force was too high, and the reporting of it was too low," Fishman says.

This is a remarkable success story, all done at a time when serious crime in Newark has dropped by 40 percent in the last five years. Both Harvey and Fishman say the key to that success is that Mayor Ras Baraka and Police Director Anthony Ambrose took the mission to heart.

They hired more Black and brown officers, began training programs based on best-practices, required any officer who uses force in any way to report it in detail, and for the supervisor to review it. The bad cops were suddenly outed.

Former Gov. Christie Whitman fought like a wildcat to keep the DOJ away from the State Police during the racial-profiling scandal, a defensive reaction that is more commonplace. But the DOJ came anyway, and it succeeded.

Baraka welcomed this intervention. He himself was a leading campaigner against police brutality before he became mayor. And Ambrose, who looks like a stereotypical old Italian beat cop, turned out to be a progressive at heart, a guy who took a knee during local demonstrations over the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.

"I've been around a long time, and that was outright murder," Ambrose says. "Most of the officers and the rank-and-file I speak with say the same thing."

The work to reshape the department's warped culture is painstaking, and even after five years, people like Hamm worry that it could all collapse if the DOJ leaves. Even this success stories is tentative. On Jan. 1, a Newark officer fatally shot Carl Dorsey III, of South Orange, during a confrontation in the South Ward, a case that's being investigated by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who moved investigations of fatal police shootings out of local hands to ensure an impartial investigation.

Grewal calls Newark's progress "nothing short of remarkable" and says his own ambitious statewide police reforms drew partly on that that success, and a similar turnaround in Camden.

The work to fix a dysfunctional department is painstaking. A big part is community outreach, with endless public meetings between police and civilians to work out grievances, engagement of local clergy and neighborhood leaders, and relying on civilian groups to settle differences where possible, rather than police.

During the George Floyd protests, it was the Street Team that saved the day when a group of protesters besieged the city police precinct where the 1967 riots began, throwing bottles and agitating for a clash. The cops stayed inside, and Sherrills' group engaged.

"There were a bunch of folks from outside the city who were determined to create havoc," Sherrills said. "We followed them all day. We saw the kids in back throwing bottles, so folks engaged the community. Folks literally stopped them and said 'Enough of that.'"

Training is critical, too, especially on de-escalating violence. Brian O'Hara, the deputy chief overseeing training, said the old-fashioned version was to show officers how to win a confrontation, when to make the move. "It was a paramilitary kind of training, just focused on stopping the threat," he said.

Now, the model is to calm things down, engage the threatening person, while creating distance or taking cover, and buying time until reinforcements arrive, he says. Newark officers view videos presenting challenging scenarios, offer responses, then discuss it with supervisors.

"It's not about resolving the situation as quickly as you can," O'Hara says. "It's about protecting the sanctity of every life."

Posted by at April 25, 2021 12:00 AM