In Newark, honest talk about police and community | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on October 09, 2016

There was a time when Newark Mayor Ras Baraka protested against the city police. Now, he is charge of them.

There was a time when U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman investigated and sued the Newark police. Now, he is "partnered" with them.

Larry Hamm has railed against police brutality for 25 years. Now, he sits with law enforcement leaders, lending his voice to ways to improve police-community relations.

For these men, the recent surge in concern over distrust and animosity between police and African-Americans is nothing new.

What's new, as Baptist bishop Jethro James, of Newark, said, is that there are "substantive conversations at the highest level of government."

He means from the president on down.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch came to Newark on the final leg of President Barack Obama's "National Community Policing Week" tour, which gathered police and community leaders together in several cities to discuss ways to de-escalate tension between cops and black communities, and find long-term ways to build trust.

Lynch and Fishman hosted about 75 police leaders and activists, prosecutors and pastors, elected officials, including Baraka, and policy makers as they took part in that conversation.

"While some of us were once on opposite sides, history has converged us to work together at this time," Baraka said in his opening remarks.

Newark — and New Jersey — have history here, good and bad.

Where to begin?

In 1967? When the arrest and beating of a black cab driver with the everyman name of John Smith led to the riots/rebellion that scarred the city for decades to come?

In 1991? When Hamm and the group he started — People's Organization for Progress (POP) — took to the streets to protest a Newark and Hillside police shooting that left two occupants of a stolen van dead, one of whom was a pregnant 16 year old.

Or in 1998? When concerns about New Jersey State Police "racial profiling" came to a head after three basketball players were shot during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike?

Or when concerns about a multitude of unanswered Newark police brutality claims opened the door to scrutiny by the ACLU and Fishman seven years ago?

"All of us (in the room) are acutely aware we have real issues of trust between police and the community," Fishman said in his opening remarks, but added that his Newark and New Jersey "partners" brought "hope and commitment for a new vision."

And this is where the good history comes in.

Newark — and New Jersey — were actually described by Lynch as "model jurisdictions" for police-community relation initiatives that other parts of the country are just waking up to. The N.J. State Police culture was completely overhauled after the federal government began monitoring their stops and arrests in 1999. Ten years later, the state police came out from underneath that federal oversight.

The Newark Police Department's federal oversight is just beginning. A consent decree — which is an agreement by the city to allow federal oversight and to meet certain standards — just went into effect this summer, but has been six years in the making. In that time, the city has moved to correct what Fishman called "serious deficiencies" in police response to citizen complaints and internal affairs investigations.

Fishman credited both Baraka and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose as being "very willing partners" for change in police ranks. Much of it was already happening before the consent decree, including police and community meet-and-greets; minority recruitment; help from clergy in tense situations; creation of a civilian police complaint review board; and a greater emphasis on quality-of-life enforcement as a way for cops to engage with the public.

Lynch said yesterday it is time for the country to "move the debate past the denials." James, who was the New Jersey State Police chaplain during the racial profiling days, agreed.

"Now, we're sitting at the table of truth and wherever the truth takes us, let the chips fall where they may," said James, who is the social issue adviser to 89 Baptist congregations in Newark and North Jersey.

Those truths, James said, are not just about police transparency, but also about community responsibility.

"If we want the police to be more respectful and law-abiding, we have to demand the same things of ourselves," he said. "We are obligated to raise our children to be law-abiding citizens. We cannot harbor fugitives. We cannot have guns and drugs coming into our homes."

Newark was the last stop in a busy week for Lynch, who held a forum in Detroit, while her deputy, Sally Yates, held forums in Denver and Atlanta.

On Thursday, Lynch announced $12 million in funding to implement national community policing efforts and $7 million to develop strategies for communities dealing with cases of "high-profile violence," such the recent shooting in Charlotte.  

In New Jersey on Wednesday, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino announced a new diversity training program for all New Jersey officers, similar to training Lynch has put in place for agents and officers of the FBI, ATF, DEA and U.S. Marshals Service.

At the seminar on Friday, Ambrose announced a $382,000 federal grant that will put body cameras on every officer and video cameras in every cruiser in his police department.

"It's about time," he said. "But let's face it. It's because of technology. Everybody has these cellphone cameras and now people can see what we've been protesting for years."

Each Monday, Hamm and POP are outside Fishman's office, asking for federal investigations of several police shootings that date back more than a decade.

He lists the names of black men killed in Trenton, Irvington, Lyndhurst, Newark and Bridgeton.

"I'm encouraged by what I'm hearing," he said. "But the reforms have to go much deeper. We're still not getting justice in some cases because police aren't being charged. When police start being charged, police brutality will end."

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