Newark residents say federal takover of PD a 'step in the right direction'

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media, for
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on July 23, 2014


By Dan Ivers/N.J. Advance Media, for and Naomi Nix/The Star-Ledger

NEWARK — City residents expressed cautious optimism that the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee reforms in the Newark Police Department might help heal deep-seated feelings of distrust and animosity between the force and the community.

The appointment, expected to become official in mid-September, will require police officials to make various changes aimed at resolving issues in the force revealed by the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday, including widespread civil rights violations in its so-called “stop-and-frisk” program and use of force and systemic problems in its handling of civilian complaints.

City officials and leaders have generally welcomed the move as an opportunity to rebuild a sense of trust in the department, which has broken down over decades of clashes between officers and residents, particularly in the violent neighborhoods of the South and West wards.

When asked about the change, several residents and community leaders largely shared the sentiment that almost any departure from the status quo was likely to be a change for the better.

“People have been saying that this is a step in the right direction, a progressive step in the right direction to make the police department accountable to the people of Newark,” said Bashir Akinyele, who helps lead the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, which holds weekly demonstrations to raise awareness of the scourge of murders plaguing the city.

“There are some good officers, but there are some bad ones, too. The police department has had a tenuous relationship with the people because of it.”

The force's shaky reputation with locals was evident Wednesday among those gathered in downtown Newark, where news of a federal monitor garnered widespread approval.

"It's pretty bad out here with the cops," said William Cooke, 40.

The Paterson resident doesn't linger in the city long enough to have much interaction with local cops, but said he's heard about the department's "over-aggressive" tactics from his classmates at Drake College of Business.

"They’re definitely going against their guidelines,"
  he said.

Tyalers McKie, 18, said she has seen officers in her North Ward neighborhood approach young minority males more often than other groups. 

"I just don't trust them," she said. " I just feel like they single out the minority and the youth."

Rutgers University's Abbot Leadership Institute director Junius Williams, said the breakdown of trust between minority communities, such as Newark, can be traced to the 1980s war on drugs. Minority men in urban centers were more likeley to be targeted, even if drug use was more prevalent in the suburbs, Wiliams said.

Williams, who has given diversity training to the State Police, said in any given community there is only a fraction of people who are law breakers. But when the rest of the community sees how law enforcement targets minority populations in their neighborhoods they may distrust the police force.

“Even the people who do not use drugs see the overpolicing. In the long run, these are the children of the people who live in the neighborhood,” Williams said. “That erodes the relationship amongst the broader community."

Other city residents said they had not been treated badly by Newark police officers but still found it difficult to place their full trust behind the department.

Annie Brown, who has been living in the Newark area since relocating from Alabama in the early 1960s, said her observations of police officers had left her with mixed feelings about the officers' respect for residents, especially those whose actions are being driven by poverty and desperation.

“I’ve watched a lot of things. I know a lot of them by face and I shake my head at them, because I think it could be done better — more professional, more caring,” she said. “This is survival out here.”

Newark police union president James Stewart Jr. said he and other officers regularly encounter distrust from residents, and admitted that the force’s relationship with the community was badly in need of repair.

“I want that woman who lives in the middle of the block not to be distrustful, not to fear me — I want her to tell me who that suspect was in the carjacking from the night before. That might be the tip that breaks the job,” he said. "If we’ve stopped that woman three times in the last month because she’s standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, she’s going to be reluctant to talk to us."

Rischa Goodwin, 28, who was watching her two young children at a Branch Brook Park playground Wednesday afternoon, said she was sympathetic to the difficulties officers face in the line of duty, and was inclined to support their efforts to fight crime. She admitted, however, that their reputation in her West Ward neighborhood sometimes made her feel conflicted.

“You hear stuff, you see certain stuff. It just makes it hard to feel like that,” she said.

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