Newark residents shouldn't fear retribution for tapping proposed police review board, Baraka says

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 26, 2015

NEWARK — Mayor Ras Baraka earlier this week announced new details about the city's proposed civilian complaint review board as he sought to ease concerns about its ability to help prevent police misconduct.

In a statement, Baraka offered assurances that there would be no statute of limitations on complaints to the board, and that officials were exploring steps to ensure no one who files an unsubstantiated complaint would face retaliation from officers.

"We will maintain a clear, transparent and professional disciplinary process in our Police Department to ensure that our residents and visitors receive the police services they deserve, the protection they need, and that we can continue to transform Newark into a City we can all believe in," he said.

The announcement came in response to comments from the public at three public hearings, the most recent of which was held on Monday at Metropolitan Baptist Church in the city's Central Ward. That forum drew more than 200 attendees, many of whom voiced concerns about the board's reach and potential backlash against those who might attempt to make use of it.

Newark Anti-Violence Coalition Co-Chair Sharif Amenhotep was among those in attendance at the hearing, and said many of the speakers were clearly skeptical of a disciplinary process they felt had failed them in the past.

"Sometimes the police officers become vindictive, and (residents) have no protection," he said. "The police have shown that they have been abusive of their authority, and some of them will retaliate."

The mayor, Police Director Eugene Venable and Police Chief Anthony Campos outlined the first concrete plans for the board in January, saying it was the next step in helping to heal a long-standing rift between the public and city law enforcement, highlighted by a damning U.S. Department of Justice report released last year.

Under current plans for the board, citizens would have the option of directing their complaints there, or to the police department's internal affairs unit. Board members would then conduct an independent investigation on cases brought before them, and would be able to summon the officers facing the allegations to a formal hearing.

If the board determines that punishment is warranted, it can make a recommendation to the director and chief, who will issue a final decision. Baraka said final word will not be left solely to their discretion, but will be based on a so-called discipline "matrix" that the city is in the process of drafting.

The board would consist of an inspector general appointed by the mayor, three members of the Municipal Council or their designees, and one chosen each of five community organizations — the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, People's Organization for Progress, Ironbound Community Corporation and La Casa de Don Pedro.

Only the inspector general will be permitted to be a current or former member of the police department, Baraka said.

The first inspector general will serve a three-year term and initial council appointees will serve two years, respectively, though all subsequent members will be granted one-year terms on the board.

Complaints will be able to be filed through the city's mobile app, My Newark, and there are plans to create a phone line to allow residents without internet access the ability to file them as well, Baraka revealed earlier this week.

Newark Fraternal Order of Police President James Stewart Jr. declined to comment, but he and other police labor leaders have previously voiced objection to the current plans for the board.

Earlier this year, he and Newark Superior Officers' Association President John Chrystal contended that the current framework would violate both state civil service laws and the terms of their current contracts.

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