Civilian oversight needed to 'build faith' in Newark cops, mayor says

By Vernal Coleman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 02, 2016

Mayor Ras Baraka, city council members and community activists address the Civilian Complaint Review Board at a press conference at Newark City Hall on Wednesday.

 

NEWARK — With a unanimous vote, the Newark Municipal Council on Wednesday took a first step toward codifying the executive order establishing the city's first civilian complaint review board into law — a move advocates say will ensure lasting public oversight of the city's police force.

Mayor Ras Baraka created the board by executive order in April 2015. By approving the bill on first reading Wednesday, the Municipal Council set the stage for a final vote on March 16, when council members could ensure that the board remains in place beyond Baraka's administration.

Joined at City Hall by members of the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and other organizations who for years have lobbied for greater police transparency, Mayor Ras Baraka called the establishment of the Citizen's Review Complaint Board a "necessary" step toward repairing a rift between the police department and the city's residents.

"The mindset of the police department we have now is one that wants to work with the community," Baraka said. "The objective is to help police solve crime in a constitutional way so that people have faith not just in police but in the apparatus of the legal system itself. It is incredibly important to build faith in people that the legal system works for them and not against them."

Other speakers echoed Baraka, describing the creation of the board as an essential step toward rebuilding community trust.

Udi Ofer, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, said Newark residents have been pushing for greater civilian oversight of the city's police force since the 1960's.

With the board's creation, Ofer said civilians members can independently review police misconduct allegations and make sure that discipline is administered when misconduct occurs.

Both provisions are key to ensuring that the Newark board is capable of increasing police accountability, power that civilian review boards in some other cities do not have, Ofer said.

Conceived in the wake of a damning report released by the U.S. Department of Justice in July 2014, the board is designed to provide additional civilian oversight of a beleaguered police department that federal investigators found routinely engaged in acts of excessive force and violations of resident's constitutional rights.

It would grant citizens the option of directing their complaints to the board or to the police department's internal affairs unit. Board members would then conduct an independent investigation on cases brought before them, and would be able to summon the officers facing the allegations to a formal hearing.

The board will issue a determination as to whether an act of misconduct occurred, which will be forwarded to the city's police chief, who can issue a final decision on punishment using a so-called "discipline matrix" that creates guidelines for certain offenses and their severity.

The board will consist of an inspector general appointed by the mayor, three members of the Municipal Council or their designees, and one chosen each of six community organizations — the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, People's Organization for Progress, Ironbound Community Corporation, La Casa de Don Pedro and a local clergy member.

"I'm not against the cops doing their job," said Laquan Thomas of the Ironbound Community Corporation. "But the police have got to understand, you could have a good relationship with the community, but it all depends on your attitude. That's why we need this board because we need to all work together."

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said he was supportive of the city's efforts to increase accountability, saying the board is a useful tool for combating police misconduct, but not a solution.

The union that represents the city's rank-and-file police officers maintains that the board as constituted may be a violation of state law.

Stephen Richman, attorney for the Newark Fraternal Order of Police, said the union plans to challenge the order in both administrative and state court.

"There are several provisions that may not conform to state law," Richman said. "So, we'll raise the issue and go to court and see what a judge has to say."

An exact timeline for when the board would begin work was not provided, but Mayor Baraka said the board could begin reviewing complaints within the span of a few months.

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