5 unanswered questions from PBS's Newark PD documentary

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 06, 2016

NEWARK — What will reform in the Newark police department really look like?

In an hour-long FRONTLINE documentary that premiered on PBS on June 28, "Policing the Police," reporter Jelani Cobb follows the NPD for a year. In the aftermath of a Department of Justice report finding that officers frequently violated citizens' rights, Cobb accompanies police units on the streets of Newark, and talks with city officials about changes happening in the department.

Cobb, a reporter at the New Yorker and former college classmate and friend of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, has been following police-citizen relations in cities across the country since 2014 riots in Ferguson, Mo. after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

For the documentary, he was in and out of Newark for about a year. Initially, he said in an interview with NJ Advance Media Wednesday, he thought he'd be following the implementation of the DOJ reforms.

But, it took nearly two years for the federal department and the city to reach a consent decree outlining the changes. It wasn't until earlier this year that the two chose a federal monitor to oversee the implementation of the plan. The city council also only approved the creation of a civilian review board to review police conduct in March.

In the meantime, Baraka also overhauled the organizational structure of the city's police and fire crews, combining their leadership into a single "Department of Public Safety," lead by former Essex County Prosecutor's Office Chief of Detectives Anthony Ambrose.

"It took a really long time for the Department of Justice and Newark to (agree to) terms," Cobb said Wednesday.

"This (documentary) is really just the front end of the (story)."

Whether or not the reform efforts have an impact in the Brick City remains to be seen, Cobb said.

"Reforming the police in Newark is clearly going to be a long haul, and the problems go beyond the police alone," Cobb concludes near the end of the documentary. "But Ras has no choice but to believe that change is possible."

While the department is still in the midst of its transition, the investigation highlighted several lingering questions about the future of the NPD, and the fate of the city it serves:

  1. What is the status of the PD's communications department? The film highlights a mayoral visit to the communications center in which he finds non-working computers and an abundance of under-informed officers staffing it. Part of a 45-day plan Ambrose released in February outlined plans to rework the department and decrease emergency response times. The documentary begs the question, has there been progress?
  2. How are officers organized? The gang unit followed for most of the documentary was reassigned as part of the 45-day plan. How has the new configuration changed things?
  3. Where is the line? Repeatedly through the piece, Cobb asks if police officers can realistically get guns and drugs off of Newark streets without violating citizens' rights. He never settles on a concrete answer.
  4. Has the public safety department switch worked? At the end of last year, Baraka overhauled the police and fire departments, naming Ambrose director. In the documentary, Cobb questions the decision, calling Ambrose part of the "old guard." Since the appointment, the department has touted reductions in certain crimes. But, the film pushes for a greater analysis of the switch.
  5. What's an acceptable timeline? Cobb concludes that change in the Newark police department will take a long time. It's been about two years since the DOJ report, and reform agreements have just recently been reached. How long will reform actually take?
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