Creation of civilian complaint review board will bring needed oversight to Newark police | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on March 29, 2015

By John L. Smith

In my three decades as an officer with the Newark Police Department, I saw dramatic changes - good and bad. But in all my years in Newark, whether serving in the police department or in my current role as an academic and community activist, I have never seen as much potential for real, lasting reform.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's proposal to create a civilian complaint review board (CCRB) could be the most effective, groundbreaking board of its kind in the country, as long as the final product incorporates input from the community into its final plan, and empowers the CCRB to make discipline stick.

The proposal would create an independent board of nine people with a stake in the Newark community, giving them real power to hold the police accountable. It would have the authority to receive community misconduct complaints and investigate them, and the discretion to audit police policies and practices. The proposal would put in place a discipline matrix to determine appropriate action based on the type and severity of an officer's misconduct. Crucially, the police director would have to observe strict limits on when the department could overrule the CCRB's findings. This measure of accountability was missing during my years in the NPD, and it was sorely needed.

There's more common ground than we often think between police officers and community members who fight for accountable policing. As someone who has worn both hats, I understand both sides. As an officer, I saw the results of unchecked abuses of power. While I always encouraged people to take their concerns to internal affairs, I just as often saw officers who discouraged complaints and retaliated against people who spoke up for their rights. I remember the powerlessness I felt at the time, seeing abuses of power but having little hope for accountability or appropriate discipline. I don't want current and future generations of Newark police officers to view the blue wall of silence as impenetrable, but rather as a relic of a dysfunctional past. That requires the creation of a CCRB. Officers need protection for their rights as well, and this proposal would afford them that due process.

As an officer and as an ordinary Newarker, I know of only one step capable of mending the fraught relationship between the police and the community: a change in culture. This proposal for a CCRB, which puts power into the hands of independent, knowledgeable concerned community members, in tandem with the Department of Justice's impending monitor to oversee reforms as the result of a multi-year civil rights investigation, could finally initiate the departmental rebirth residents have sought for more than 50 years.

I saw firsthand during my time in the police that while most officers do their jobs with honor and professionalism, police departments cannot be trusted with unchecked authority to police themselves. I saw officers assault people who had done nothing wrong simply for showing up at the station to ask about their loved ones. The NPD needs objective, independent oversight, which is exactly what a CCRB would bring.

In my years as a cop, I also saw flashes of brilliant leadership, particularly during the tenure of Police Director Hubert Williams. Yet one of the most sobering lessons of working under an inspirational figure is the temporary nature of their initiatives. Mayor Baraka's executive order, while not an indefinite measure, lays a solid foundation, one that future administrations would have to affirmatively overturn to eliminate. We are in a unique and historic moment in Newark's history. It's our responsibility to seize it and transform our city by joining together to make a strong and independent CCRB a reality.

John L. Smith, an adjunct professor of criminal justice as Essex County College, retired from the Newark Police Department in 2000 and serves as third vice president of the Newark Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a steering committee member of Newark Communities for Accountable Policing.

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