Former N.J. attorney general tapped as Newark PD watchdog, will oversee sweeping reforms

By Vernal Coleman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 30, 2016

New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman (at podium) is joined by (l-r) Vanita Gupta, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark Police Director Anthony Ambrose at a press conference announcing the appointment of former State Attorney General Peter C. Harvey to monitor the Newark Police department at the Peter W. Rodino, Jr. Federal Building in Newark on Wednesday. 03/30/2016

 

NEWARK — The planned reformation of the Newark Police Department took a major step forward Wednesday, as city and federal officials named a nominee to oversee the process.

Former state attorney general Peter C. Harvey has been tapped to shepherd the implementation of a now finalized consent decree placing the city's police force under federal oversight.

Harvey, who served as the state's top lawyer from 2003 to 2006, and who during his tenure oversaw the New Jersey State Police in the wake of the racial profiling scandal that led to its own period of federal monitoring, will be paid by the city to ensure its compliance with the decree.

"He's familiar with police," said New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in a Monday interview. "He has enormous respect for the incredibly difficult work that law enforcement organizations do, but he also understands how a police department can be reformed and he's seen how the process works."

Once Harvey is certified as monitor, the city will be required to maintain compliance with the decree for a continuous two-year span, though officials said the implementation of the reforms could take as long as five.

Harvey's nomination coincides with end of protracted negotiations between federal and city officials over the particulars of the decree.

In its settlement with the federal government, Newark agreed to a host of reforms meant to address a pattern of unconstitutional practices that had been uncovered by the DOJ, including improper searches and stops, better known as "Stop and Frisk," and excessive use of force.

"The department is challenged in fundamental ways, and has engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing in a broad range of areas," Fishman said. "And it is also clear that the Police Department's relationship with the people of the city has suffered dramatically from the combination of those practices. Community trust has deteriorated, and that, in turn, has compromised the effectiveness of the department."

Among the planned reforms, Newark officers will receive new training in the use of force. New computer systems will be implemented to track officer misconduct. And new guidelines will be developed for the use of dashboard cameras, Fishman said.

The agreement sets specific benchmarks for the improvement of other problem areas identified in a 2014 Department of Justice investigation of the city's police force, he added.

"The mechanisms in the decree are all designed to better support officers in doing the job of public safety and to ensure they have the trust of the community," said Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division.

Prompted by allegations of police brutality and false arrests made by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, USDOJ inquiry details a raft of systemic failures and evidence of widespread misconduct within Newark's police ranks, including racial profiling and police theft of property confiscated from detainees.

The DOJ released the report shortly after the 2014 election that swept Mayor Ras Baraka into office. While Baraka's administration initially embraced the the DOJ's findings, he conceded on Wednesday to not being enthused that city residents will shoulder the cost of monitoring.

The agreement places a $7.4 million funding cap on the monitor's expenses. How much the monitoring process will ultimately cost the city remains unclear.

Baraka's administration has already begun taking steps toward goals outlined in a preliminary agreement reached in 2014.

Those include plans to hire an attorney to oversee the department's internal affairs unit and the formation of a civilian complaint review board, in order to implement expanded engagement with city residents.

"We look at it as an opportunity," Baraka said in a news conference on Wednesday. The reforms "will get Newark to where it needs to be," he added.

The board, which officials said is not formalized in the consent decree, has drawn vocal opposition from the city's police unions. But union leaders have signaled that members of the police force are open to the proposed reforms.

"Since this [federal monitoring] first surfaced we've been looking forward to getting the problems that this department has ironed out," said James Stewart, President of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police.

"If this consent decree is going to get better training, then we're all for it, because ultimately we all want a better, safer Newark," he said.

Udi Ofer, ACLU-NJ Executive Director, called upon federal officials to ensure changes that will outlast the monitoring period. 

For 50 years the people of Newark have called for federal oversight of Newark policing, he said. "But now the hard work begins."

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