Jurisprudence

Can Newark Maintain its Hard-Earned Police Reforms?

Four years of federal oversight might be coming to a close. The community and the cops have started to learn from one another. Can it last?

A woman with a sign raises her fist as a crowd gathers at a People's Organization for Progress rally to protest police brutality on August 17, 2020 in Newark, NJ.
A crowd gathers at a People’s Organization for Progress rally to protest police brutality on August 17, 2020 in Newark, New Jersey. The Peoples Organization for Progress has gathered every Monday for their Justice Mondays since 2016, only taking a few weeks off during the coronavirus. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2021, Newark, New Jersey, reached a policing milestone. The city’s police had gone an entire calendar year without firing a shot at a civilian. It was a big deal: A department criticized by local activists and residents, one under the watchful eye of the federal government, finished 2020 without killing anyone—the first time since 2015.

The new year also brought Newark’s streak to an abrupt end. At 12:03 a.m. on January 1, a plainclothes cops shot and killed Carl Dorsey, a 39-year-old father. The state’s attorney general is investigating the incident.

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Dorsey’s killing occurred at a crossroads for policing in Newark, as residents and officials hash out decisions that will shape public safety for years to come. The most immediate question: Can Newark sustain change if the federal government leaves the city to its own devices? Mayor Ras Baraka has spent much of his time in office trying to get two crucial groups—Newark’s cops and its Black community—to trust each other and work together. Under Baraka, the police have met with community groups, giving residents input into law enforcement. Officers and civilians have also explored how decades of violence traumatized them all.

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“We realize there is work to do,” Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara says. “At any given time the reservoir of trust could be drained.” Trust has been hard won, the product of decades of work by activists, political pressure from the mayor, and federal intervention. A scathing 2014 Department of Justice report detailed a host of unconstitutional and illegal practices by police officers, leading to a 2016 consent decree, a legal agreement between the city and the federal government that prescribed a set of reforms and placed the Police Department under a court-appointed monitor. It gave Baraka more leverage to begin pushing for major police reforms. But the consent decree has been expensive, costing at least $11 million overall, so far.

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Under the monitor, the department reached a point in 2020 that would seem unimaginable to longtime residents. While other cities burned and cops clashed with protesters in the demonstrations that erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Newark had 12,000 protesters descend during the course of a weekend without its police making a single arrest. At one point Baraka marched alongside the demonstrators. That it could stand back as protesters decried police actions was a leap for a department whose actions ignited the 1967 Newark uprisings, one of the deadliest in American history. The combination of federal oversight, political pressure from the mayor and Newark’s long tradition of activism formed a three-legged stool to support police reform.

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But underneath the public displays of solidarity, and beyond the Police Department’s signs of restraint, lies an agency that has not yet made Newark both physically safe and constitutionally sound. Cops didn’t kill anyone in 2020, but officers used force in 453 incidents, sending 79 to the hospital. Black people were disproportionately stopped, frisked, and arrested. And from 2015 to 2019, the Newark Police Department killed eight Black men, according to The Washington Post, more than any other department in the state. The heavy hand of policing in Newark is still landing on its Black community.

Under the terms of the agreement, May is the earliest Newark could be released from federal oversight. That decision rests with court monitor and former New Jersey state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who did not respond to requests for comment. Sources in City Hall familiar with Harvey’s thinking say they don’t believe he plans to release the city from the court monitoring. The pandemic delayed some of the progress required under the federal agreement, and Newark still has areas where it hasn’t achieved compliance.

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Within the city’s activist community, there’s general agreement that six years of reforms haven’t erased decades of strife between the police and Black and Latinx communities. But some are split over whether the consent decree remains necessary. One camp firmly believes the Police Department is poised to keep improving without the federal government peering over its shoulder. The monitoring, to a set of younger activists in Newark, is designed to make the Newark Police Department better. To Aqeela Sherrills, who Baraka brought in to help with reforms beyond the department, fixing the cops is one thing, but public safety is changing. Cities are looking outside law enforcement. “Never again will law enforcement be a single source of contact for safety,” he said

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But older activists in Newark worry that without the consent decree, the city could easily regress. “When [it] ends and there is no oversight over the cops, it is easy for the cops to slide back to what they were doing before,” said Zayid Muhammad, the 59-year-old founder of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition. “The federal oversight is the driving engine. This police department is not reforming itself because [of] its own good will.”

The seeds of Newark’s police reform effort were sown in the 1967 uprising. The clashes started with Newark cops’ beating of a Black taxicab driver and stretched for five days. The uprising left buildings burned by arson, 26 dead, and dozens more injured. A police officer struck Amiri Baraka, the famed poet and activist, with the handle of his gun; another officer joined in. The event marked Amiri’s son Ras Baraka’s early life and forged his commitment to end police brutality. “Ras Baraka came directly out of the activism movement,” Muhammad said. “His father is a legend here.”

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While the 1967 uprising conceived the movement for police reform in Newark, its gestation period would be long. Residents took to the streets again after the 1991 police slaying of Tasha Mayse, a pregnant 16-year-old fatally shot in a stolen van. Cops fired at least 40 rounds into the vehicle following a chase, also killing 20-year-old Lamont Russell Jones and injuring two other passengers. A New Jersey grand jury declined to file manslaughter charges against the cops, and the Newark Police Department cleared them of misconduct.

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Following the Mayse shooting, Lawrence Hamm, a 67-year-old activist, saw a steady stream of community members bringing complaints of police brutality to his group, the People’s Organization for Progress. “Every other week, someone was coming into our office saying they had been brutalized by the cops,” Hamm said. At first, cases didn’t go far. The People’s Organization for Power isn’t staffed with lawyers; the best it could do was to direct people to legal aid attorneys. But in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union gathered some of the claims, and handed them to the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched an investigation.

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The probe received only soft support from former Mayor Cory Booker. “Cory Booker was almost an absentee mayor, he was very polished, great profile, great resume,” Muhammad said, “but he didn’t do enough to address the problems with the Police Department.” Booker commissioned a stop-and-frisk tracking policy and called for the creation of a civilian review board, but did so in the waning days of his administration, after he announced his run for U.S. Senate. In 2013, Booker would leave Newark for Washington, D.C, making way for Ras Baraka to become mayor the next year—and follow through on Booker’s eleventh-hour promises. The decades-long struggle for police reform transitioned from grassroots to governance.

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Two weeks after Baraka took office, the Justice Department released its report, which confirmed the abuses residents claimed to have suffered at the hands of police. One in five officers had engaged in excessive force. Black residents, who account for a little more than half the city’s population, made up 85 percent of the pedestrian stops and almost 80 percent of those arrested during those stops. The Justice Department also found that officers had stolen property from people they encountered and arrested.

With the DOJ report in hand, Baraka had the hammer he needed to reshape the Newark Police Department. Within weeks, Baraka signed the executive order establishing the civilian review board. He began pursuing a community-based approach to public safety that enlisted groups outside the Police Department to address crime. To lead the effort, he turned to Sherrills, who relocated to Newark from Los Angeles.

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Sherrills had risen to national prominence by negotiating a gang truce in Los Angeles in the wake of the riots that followed the verdict in the trial of the cops accused of beating Rodney King. Baraka asked Sherrills to lead the Newark Community Street Team, which mediates disputes. The program helped quell the gang violence that flared up in Newark in the early 2000s. The city also formed the Safer Newark Council, which convened law enforcement, City Hall, and community groups to talk about crime, violence, incidents with law enforcement, and what effect all of it was having on residents. But these steps were just the beginning of Baraka’s plan.

Baraka’s next move was to hold a different kind of meeting between the police and the community. If reforms were going to work, the city needed to heal from decades of trauma. In 2016, Baraka allowed Newark to be a test site for Trauma to Trust, a program where the community and police officers meet in group settings to talk about the psychological strain each has experienced. Officers had to listen to how their actions had scarred the community. Newark’s residents had to hear about officers’ fears. The sessions left plenty on both sides in tears. “Trauma to Trust is radical, and it’s great,” said O’Hara, a 20-year veteran of the Newark Police Department. “Trauma is our common denominator. Officers experience that in very similar ways to people on the street.”

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By 2016, Newark was under a consent decree, joining Baltimore as one of the last major cities to fall under federal monitoring; under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice would not place local law enforcement under court supervision. Officers in Newark would receive mandatory training on de-escalation techniques. Stop and frisks wouldn’t end, but Newark would have to fight crime without the rampant police stops the department had used for years. “The consent decree is about everything that is wrong with policing in the United States,” O’Hara said. “The decree gave the city a vehicle to mandate reforms that are not always popular.”

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Officers did push back against some changes required by the federal monitors, including body-worn cameras, fearing that management and the city would use the footage to scrutinize cops’ every action. Rank-and-file officers fell back on a common refrain: “‘You are going to get a cop killed,’” O’Hara recalled.

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To further transform its Police Department, Newark began to be more forceful in disciplining officers. In the first full year of the agreement, the city terminated 12 cops. The number of disciplinary hearings held by the department went from 142 in 2016 to 300 in 2019.

The most vivid proof of the changes came during last summer’s protests. Unlike many other cities, Newark didn’t send cops to the front of the demonstration in riot gear because doing so, police leaders thought, would only trigger conflict. The approach reflected a big shift. “When Booker was mayor and Garry McCarthy was police director, anytime we wanted to demonstrate it was an adversarial relationship between us and the police,” Hamm said. The police director during the 2020 demonstration, Anthony Ambrose, positioned the cops in tactical gear away from the center of the protests, but he also called on Sherrills and his outreach workers to act as eyes and ears. The Newark Street Team disarmed a man with a bat who had targeted a store window. “There is a reason why we had a protest with 12,000 people here and didn’t have any violence or arrests, because things have changed with the department and with the city,” Sherrills said.

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But how much? Like the killing of Mayse almost 30 years earlier, Dorsey’s death on Jan. 1 has again focused attention on the tactics employed by police. He was shot and killed by plainclothes cops, what residents call “jump out boys.” While police departments in other cities with strained relationships between the community and cops, like Baltimore, have ended plainclothes policing, Newark is still deploying officers not in uniform to use the element of surprise to catch those suspected of breaking the law. Residents believe it’s the jump out boys who are responsible for the department’s disproportionate use of force against — and continued stopping and frisking of — Black people. “There has been a reduction of police brutality, but reduction is not elimination,” Hamm said.

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Another point of contention is the limited purview of Baraka’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. The board, composed of community group members, can examine the actions of police in shootings, and complaints against cops. But it does not have subpoena powers or the ability to hold independent investigations outside the department’s own internal affairs process. The department’s rank-and-file went to court to fight for those limitations; so far, they’ve prevailed.

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Hamm and Muhammad vividly remember the 1967 uprising and the decades of work it has taken to achieve modest progress. Both understand that eventually the consent decree will end. But neither wants that to happen until the civilian review board has the authority to hold cops accountable. “We absolutely have to have a civilian review, and not just in Newark, by the way, everywhere,” Hamm said. “The problem of police brutality is so widespread and so deep in American society, there clearly needs to be oversight of police by civilians.” State Assembly member Angela McKnight pushed a bill to establish such boards across New Jersey. The bill made it out of committee and to the full state Assembly on March 17.

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Sherrills, on the other hand, is part of a group of younger activists who believe the monitoring served its purpose: It gave Baraka the cover necessary to make the reforms, and now the infrastructure is in place, they argue, to make even more changes without federal oversight.

Neither Baraka nor his staff say whether he wanted the monitoring to continue beyond May. But the mayor expressed confidence that efforts to improve the Police Department could continue without oversight from outside the city. “These policies will remain in place, once we are no longer under the Consent Decree,” Baraka said in an emailed statement in response to The Trace’s questions. “All these changes will prayerfully keep our department from sliding into past practices, because there is a growing respect and trust between the police and community.”

Federal intervention isn’t cheap. The consent decree’s price tag has covered hours of training and $7.4 million to pay Harvey to act as the court monitor, and $4 million to upgrade equipment and training. The agreement also mandates the city upgrade the Police Department’s computer system. Baraka’s administration says the city has made some fixes, but doesn’t feel it is necessary to spend the full $35 million the court monitor has requested on this front. Its position is that the monitoring has become a drain on resources, and the city has the tools in place to continue making progress without outside oversight.

Among them: The activist community broadly supported O’Hara’s promotion to public safety director, since O’Hara coordinated consent decree compliance within the department. Then there is Baraka’s new Office of Violence prevention, which he created using $11 million, or 5 percent of the police budget. It’s part of his plan to bring a public health approach to public safety, and will hire and train social workers to replace cops in responding to nonviolent incidents.

“The standing up of a public safety strategy in the city that doesn’t only include law enforcement means they don’t need the consent decree,” Sherrills said. “You have a lot more in place in the city to keep the Police Department honest.”

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