In Newark, finding the humanity between police and public | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on July 24, 2016

Motorcycle officers head out in the Roseville Avenue neighborhood for Operation Neighborhood Focus, a Quality of Life violations crackdown, Tuesday evening in Newark. 07/19/2016

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It almost had the feel of one of those Wild West movies, when the new sheriff rides into town.

The people in the Roseville section of Newark came to their porches to view the police with curiosity and relief during one of the city's ongoing quality-of-life sweeps.

 About 20 foot patrol officers, four motorcycle cops, a few extra black-and-whites, a mobile precinct and a handful of brass and a Crimestoppers van, converged at North 7th Street and 4th Avenue last week before spreading out over 30 blocks of city's northwest section.

The official title for the program is Operation Neighborhood Focus. But it's really just tried-and-true community policing, so simple that you have to wonder why it ever went away.

White cops killing black men and black men killing men in blue has the nation – from the president on down – desperate to dampen the fear and anger.

On the day of the Dallas police funerals, President Barack Obama held a summit of civil rights activists, police chiefs, elected officials and clergy. Among the group of select urban mayors was Newark's Ras Baraka because Newark, like Dallas, is actually a leader in improving police and community relations.

Exactly two years ago, the Justice Department released a report saying Newark police showed patterns of violating civil rights. The feds reached an agreement with the city to appoint a federal monitor to oversee the police department.

It took a while, but former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey was approved and began work on July 12.

Baraka had been sworn in as mayor just weeks before the Justice report and he made abrupt changes to correct past sins. These changes included a new civilian review board and civilian oversight of police internal affairs. There was more training in conflict resolution and a call for greater restraint.

This year alone, Newark police have seized 300 guns from people either in the commission of a crime or in the process of being arrested – and still avoided the kind of shooting that makes national news.

Baraka has also put into play a series of meetings between police and community leaders, including everyone from criminology scholars to clergy to activists and ex-cons.

Operation Neighborhood Focus is an extension of all that and began more than two months ago, well before the attacks on Dallas and Baton Rouge police.

"It had to be done," said Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, who was appointed by Baraka late last year. "The mayor wanted it done. I wanted it done. When he put on 80 new cops (this year), so we had the manpower to do it."

More cops are coming. A class of 135 recruits began training this month and they, like the recent graduates, will start out walking the streets.

"It's how you get to know the people. There's no substitute for it," Ambrose said.

Foot patrols are a critical part of Operation Neighborhood Focus, and the added presence of cops is welcomed, especially by small bodega owners, who are most susceptible to armed robberies.

"There's a lot of crime in the area," said Ramon Rodijue, owner of Bryant Deli & Market, on North 6th Street near Park Avenue. "It's good. It feels safe."

Down the street, homeowner Ramon Martinez agreed.

"We need more of this. It's a deterrent," said Martinez, who has lived in the city since 1966. "It's a good way for police to get back the respect they had. People get to know them."

Acting Newark Police Capt. Adolf Perez said the face-to-face contact is critical.

"The people are our best resource,'' he said. "We can't do it without them."

Perez is in charge of the citywide operation, which has targeted areas of drug dealing, prostitution, panhandling and street racing, but also goes into the city neighborhoods, sector by sector.

Before the cops hit the street, they are given maps of crimes and complaints from the last 50 days. There are legends for homicides, rapes, armed robberies, thefts and drug activities.

"We're not coming out here blindly," Perez said. "We have crime stats and citizen complaints, so we know where to be."

The maps show clusters of dots, which represent citizen "calls for service." That, in itself, says that people want the police in their neighborhood to root out drug dealers or loiterers who make them feel unsafe.

Kiarah Davis says her block is good and the kids are safe playing in the street.

"We're all out here watching, but to have the police is good, too," she said.

The operation is 24-hour effort over multiple days in each targeted sector. The plan goes something like this: the 6 a.m. shift serves warrants; the midday shift does narcotic enforcement; and evening shift stabilizes the neighborhood with its foot patrol presence. When it gets dark, police cruisers move through the sector with their overhead lights on, to let people know they're there.

The foot patrols also identify quality-of-life issues such as illegal dumping. On North 13th, they  found the front end of a truck heaped onto a mound of trash.   

"We get sanitation and code enforcement out here with us," Perez said. "This will be gone by (the end of the week)."

But the most important part is humanizing the police to the public ... and the public to the police.

It's the only way out of this mess we're in.

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