Newark mayor tells West Ward 'Sometimes you're not going to see the police'

By Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 12, 2016

On Monday night, Newark's West Ward was the site of the first community meeting stemming from a report issued last month by the Safer Newark Council, a panel of experts named by the mayor in 2014 to take an in-depth look at crime in the city using data culled over a long period of time.
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NEWARK — In the first community meeting stemming from the release of a report on violent crime in Newark last month, Mayor Ras Baraka told 150 residents of the city's suburban West Ward that he was not there to address their demands for more police patrols or a crackdown on youth standing on street corners, words that disappointed some and won praise from others.

Rather, Baraka and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said they were in that relatively prosperous part of town to let people know that the focus of the Newark Police Department in the wake of the report would be to reduce the violent crime that has been a particularly difficult and persistent problem, both for the residents affected by it and for the damaging perception of Newark among potential investors, shoppers, new residents and others the city hopes to attract.

For too long, Baraka said, the squeaky wheels have gotten the grease when it comes to police resources, with officers posted or ordered to patrol blocks or neighborhoods that might not necessarily need them most, but where vocal residents have caught the ear of city hall.

All of Newark would still be policed, Baraka said. But additional officers the cash-strapped city has only recently begun hiring after years of layoffs and unaanswered attrition would be deployed in "hot spots," that is, areas that account for a disproportionate share of the city's murders and robberies, violent crimes that persist at high levels despite Newark's relatively modest overall crime rate compared with other cities of its size and demographics.

"The mother of the teenager who was shot didn't make it to the meeting, but you did, so you got to make your speech," Baraka said during what was supposed to be a question-and-answer session but was dominated by complaints about youth loitering on street corners and speeding traffic.

"Sometimes," Baraka told the crowd of about 150 residets gathered at the First Newark Seven Day Adventist Church on Norman Road, a sturdy brick anchor of the West Ward's Vailsburg community, "you're not going to see the police." 

Last month's report, titled "A Call to Action," was issued by the Safer Newark Council, a panel of experts named by Baraka in 2014 to take an in-depth look at crime in the city using data culled over several years. The lead author was Prof. Todd Clear of the Rutgers University School of Public Safety, a member of the Safer Newark Council, who presented the report's key findings during Monday's meeting.

Surprising findings included Newark's having less violent incidents per capita than than comparable U.S. cities of Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland and St. Louis. Among New Jersey's five largest cities by population, Newark also compares favorably or is on par with Paterson, Camden and Trenton, though it generally lags behind Jersey City, which has been uniquely prosperous in recent decades thanks to its rebirth as a New York City bedroom community and back office location.

"An effective public safety strategy must be grounded in data, not hearsay," the report states. "Therefore, for the last 9 months, the SNC has investigated patters f crime in Newark going back to 2007. It turns out that large sections of Newark experience little or no crime."

For example the report found that 80 percent of Newark streets experience no violent crime during any given year, though a small minority of locations, or "hot spots," and individuals who are often repeat or multiple offenders, account for outsize shares of the city's violence.

"Eight percent of block in Newark account for 60 percent of the violent crime," Clear told attendees of the meeting, most of them middle aged or elderly.

West Ward Councilman Joe McCallem said afterward that he appreciated the mayor's straight talk, which he called "courageous." McCallum said he supported police efforts to focus on concentrated violence, and he noted that he had supported the mayor's 2016 budget, which included a 3-percent tax hike that's helping to fund the hiring of 150 new police officers. 

But McCallum said his ward, while relatively prosperous compared with others, was far from crime free, and needed a visible police presence to deter violent crime. 

"We do need more police presence," McCallum said in an interview afterward. "There is something to be said for cops patrolling."

West Ward resident Houston Stevens, 74, a veteran community activist, said he, too, appreciated the mayor's candor.

"They're taking a scientific, educated approach to fighting crime," Stevens said.

But Angelique Francois, a 24-year-old West Ward resident, said did not like what she heard. Francois, a subsittute teacher in the South Orange and Maplewood School District, said it sounded like her neighborhood would not have the kind of high visibility police presence that would make her feel safer. 

"That presence does mean something," she said.

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