Newark police and clergy patrol for trust

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on December 16, 2016

Emotions kept shifting Tuesday night between a couple of Newark cops and the residents they were meeting while on patrol. The officers were greeted sometimes warmly, sometimes suspiciously and on occasion with downright icy stares.

But Lt. Wilbur Cole Jr. and Det. Joe Bernal didn't mind the changing attitudes.

Neither did Bishop Ronald Jones of New Life Body of Christ Ministries, who was riding along with another pastor and the police as part of the Newark Police/Citizen Clergy Patrol, a department strategy to build community trust.

Shawn McLean, of Newark, said he hopes the initiative is successful. But when  the clergy-cop duo pulled into the parking lot of  a gas station-food mart on Elizabeth Avenue, where he was a customer, McLean got nervous.

The car was yellow and white and had its lights flashing.

"I was alarmed,'' said McLean, who was waiting for a friend.

"I did get spooked.''

That is until Bishop Jones walked over and told him they respresented the law enforcement and spiritual tag team.

"This lets the community know that we're serious,'' Cole said.   "This is the authentication of the police division reaching out to the community to let them know that we can't do this alone.''

But it's not going to be easy. It's going to take some time, especially following a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2014 that said Newark police had violated the rights of its citizens with improper searches and stops.

"This (partnership) is good for helping, but you've got to clean up from before,'' said Darrin Bellinger, a Newark resident who was at the gas station. "That's what made the community not trust the police.''

During another stop, at South 10th Street, near Springfield Avenue, Cole walked inside a fast food chicken spot where young people were standing in line. They didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat.

"We're not here to lock anybody up,'' Cole said. "We're just here to help.''One young lady pulled her hood over her head. The fellas said nothing, facing the glass partition, waiting to order.

Jones tried to break the ice.

"How's everybody doing,'' he said.

Not a peep -  until they left.

One of the teens asked me why the cops had the lights flashing.  Another thought the group was with a different law enforcement agency, because the police car was not black and white.

The patrol car resembles a taxi, except for the lights on top and the black identifying letters on all sides:  Newark Police/Citizen Clergy Patrol.

Wherever the police unit traveled Tuesday night, people were curious, looking out from stores, wondering what was going on. The police lights were flashing purposely when they showed up at restaurants, bodegas, supermarkets, schools and a barbershop.

Some people knew they were working together. Some didn't. Once the program was explained, people were pleased an effort was being made to bridge the divide. Clergy patrols had been curtailed after police layoffs in 2010.

The program returned over a month ago, but it's been expanded, calling on clergy to do more than riding with cops from 5 pm to midnight. Newark police can now rely on religious leaders, including those of Catholics, Muslims, Christians and Jews, to comfort and counsel residents in their time of need.

"We go to hospitals and we pray with people who are distraught or going through something tragic,'' said Pastor Antione Hart, a former youth minister at Jones' church in Newark. 

Hart, now a pastor at Freedom Ministries in Plainfield, was on patrol with Cole and Jones on Tuesday but he recently prayed with a Newark family whose 7-year-old son died from an asthma attack.

Whenever the clergy is needed, Cole said, he can rely on them to spread goodwill that has been missing between officers and it residents.

"We used to know cops by name,'' said D.J. Peeples, a customer at Cut Creators Barbershop when the cops/clergy squad stopped by.

At the corner of South 10th Street and Avon Avenue, Cole was trying to connect in that way with a young man who goes by the name "Brother Malik."

"If you need any help, I'm here for you,'' he said.

Malik appreciated Coles' honesty, his sincere approach.

"These cops don't come like that,'' Malik said. "They're aggressive.''

Cole heard the same frustration from three young people at a Dunkin Donuts on South Orange Avenue.

"They could be more understanding,''' said Jelanie Webster, an employee.

Her friends - "Sav" and "Grip'' - declined to be identified, but they wanted Cole to know that they think officers don't respect them.

"I kind of feel like every cop is the same, but you're kind of different,'' Sav told Cole.

After their conversation, the young men left with some degree of optimism that things could get better.

The tension, however, is oblivious to Sincere Cox. He's only 8-years-old, but his youthfulness offers hope for Newark police.

The little boy was at a Newark community center on Clinton Place when the yellow police car pulled up.

After he saw the flashing lights, he darted outside and greeted Cole with the most flattering welcome an officer could ever want.

"I want to be a police officer like you,'' Sincere said.

Right now, you can be his friend.

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