Newark to divert $11M from public safety to create violence prevention programs

Posted Jun 11, 2020

Newark is slated to divert about $11.4 million from the city’s $228 million public safety budget toward violence prevention programs amid a growing push from activists to defund the police after George Floyd’s death.

City council on Wednesday passed a first reading of an ordinance supported by Mayor Ras Baraka to take 5% from the city’s public safety budget to create a new Office of Violence Prevention. The office will provide social services and be located in the city’s First Precinct, which would also be repurposed into a museum under the ordinance.

The mayor said Thursday he does not want to abolish the police department, an idea that has been gaining traction after Minneapolis moved ahead with eliminating its own police without another public safety plan. Baraka said eliminating the police entirely is a “bourgeois, liberal” approach that takes away attention from reforms.

“We have all our energy focused on police, as if once you get rid of the police, so goes away white supremacy, institutional racism, poverty, all the other issues that led to this,” he told reporters. “...All of America’s institutions have the same problem that the police department has. All of them. The police just have guns.”

Baraka expects there will be no reduction in the police force should the ordinance pass. The measure gained full approval from the council with one abstention from Councilman-at-Large Carlos Gonzalez.

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said he supports the budgetary shift since about 25% of calls cops respond to are for non-police related services, like a child not doing their homework or someone going through a mental health episode. If counselors or social workers responded to those calls instead of police, he said, it would free up the department to tackle more crime.

“Definitely, I don’t foresee this being a problem," he said.

The public safety director just last year credited a 50-year-low in crime to more cops walking the streets. When asked about it Thursday, Ambrose said in addition to city cops, partnerships with federal, state and county law enforcement as well as community groups like the Newark Community Street Team, also aided in that reduction.

The city’s police department lost many around 2014 due to pension reforms, Ambrose said, and there were layoffs in 2010, too. In the last five years, he added, the city has hired about 600 new police officers who are likely to stay on for 30 years to collect their pensions.

The ordinance also creates a registry of hate groups, which would include the Ku Klux Klan, and ban them from the city. Any acts of racism or racial discrimination by city employees would result in termination and any coworkers who do not intervene would also be fired.

New Afrikan Black Panther Party Chairman Shaka Zulu wants to eliminate the current system of police and then elect a new police force to give residents more control. He doesn’t want to ban any hate groups from the city since some consider modern iterations of the Black Panther movement to be racist, as well.

“Now (black and brown communities) should have the right to determine who the police chief is,” Zulu said. “It should be through elections who their chief of police is.”

There is, however, a push within Baraka’s administration to give civilians more control of the police department.

Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board would have subpoena power to investigate claims of police misconduct separately from internal affairs, but the local police union sued the city to halt its creation. The civilian complaint review board was created in 2016, the same time the city agreed to a list of reforms known as a consent decree after the U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of unconstitutional practices among police.

Newark Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12 President James Stewart, whose group is suing the city, told NJ Advance Media calls to defund police are “disheartening.”

“Here in Newark the cops have been without a contract since 2017 and getting something done with the city is never a quick process,” Stewart said. “And now they want to take more?”

More groups have been calling on lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy to pass legislation that would allow civilian complaint review boards. But Baraka on Thursday instead said state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal can change guidelines right now to allow the review boards.

Police in other cities around the nation have violently clashed with protesters, who have called for reforms ever since Floyd, a Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

In Newark, protests remained peaceful. Police mostly did not engage with those who marched in traffic and did not use force against protesters, even when there was a tense standoff with a large group at the First Precinct.

That precinct, which was formerly the Fourth Precinct, was where white officers beat a black cab driver decades ago, sparking the 1967 Newark Rebellion. The precinct will close by Dec. 31, 2021 to make space for the proposed social services and museum.

The police precinct will be moved, Baraka said, but a new location has not yet been determined.

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