Top cop Q&A: Are Newark police really reforming?

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 25, 2016

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NEWARK — A new FRONTLINE documentary casts a shadow of doubt on whether or not the Newark Police Department will be able to truly reform in accordance with a federal mandate to do so. 

But, the city's top cop says the questions highlighted in the film got it all wrong.

"We already are," Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said of when the force will change to address issues brought up in the documentary.

In a one-on-one interview with NJ Advance Media, Ambrose said the questions highlighted by the documentary, "Policing the Police," which debuted on PBS last month, are already being addressed. And, although he acknowledged that changes -- which were initiated by a U.S. Department of Justice report condemning police behavior -- are still in the midst of happening, he echoed Mayor Ras Baraka's comments that PBS missed the mark.

"The show gave no justice to what we are doing," Ambrose said.

In an interview about the piece, "Policing the Police" host Jelani Cobb said FRONTLINE had originally "thought we'd see how the (reform) process was working on the ground, but (reaching an agreement) took so long." So, much of the documentary focused on officers in the gang unit searching for guns on city streets.

Ambrose has been tasked with leading the department during its transition, a choice questioned in the documentary, which called him a member of the "Old Guard."

In a statement earlier this month, Baraka blasted the implication, saying the video "egregiously mischaracterizes Director Ambrose."

"The director is a reformer who is creating sweeping changes in police culture, and his long experience in the PD gives him extensive knowledge of what changes are needed and who can best implement them," he said.

In an interview earlier this month, Ambrose outlined the changes underway, defended the timeline of implementing them, and provided answers to the questions brought forward in the documentary:

  1. What is the status of the PD's communications department? According to Ambrose, the communications department was not operating efficiently, as shown in the documentary. About 326 emergency 911 calls a week, nearly 17,000 a year, being made to the Newark police department were not being answered by Newark call center staffers, but instead were being re-routed to Jersey City. Ambrose said he has since made many changes to the department, including suspending call takers and reinstituting response time goals. As of earlier this month, no calls were answered by Jersey City's dispatchers. "This is fixed," Ambrose said.
  2. How are officers organized? Ambrose confirmed that a gang unit shown in the film has been disbanded. As, he said, were several others that served similar roles. The smaller units have been combined into a special enforcement unit. The efficiency of the units, he said, is measured in various ways, including via the number of citizen complaints made against them. "We are doing business in a different way," Ambrose said.
  3. Where is the line? Policing a city like Newark without violating citizens' rights, Ambrose said, "comes down to training," which he said is underway in Newark so that "mistakes (no longer) become the norm." In addition to trainings officers receive in the Academy, Ambrose said the Newark PD has partnered with the Essex County Prosecutor's Office to provide additional training in citizens' rights and proper arrest, search, and seizure techniques. "A great majority of officers are working hard (to get it right)," he said. But, if trainings "fail to correct (an) officer's behavior," he or she will be subject to "negative discipline," which could include punishments ranging from written reprimands and the surrendering of overtime to suspensions and terminations, he said.
  4. Has the public safety department switch worked? Six months into the consolidation of the Newark police and fire units into the public safety department, its new head called it a "good thing." Among the advantages, Ambrose said, are easier coordination between the two emergency response teams, and condensing positions to free up officers for other duties. Over the first six months of this year, Ambrose said, the city's overall crime rate is down 20 percent, compared to crimes during the first six months of last year. But, Ambrose admitted that there is more work to do. While he said that the rates in most crime categories have seen reductions during the first half of this year, homicides have stayed flat, and aggravated assaults are up 11 percent.
  5. What's an acceptable timeline? Residents have questioned the rollout of the federal reforms. Though the initial DOJ report was made nearly two years ago, the city and federal officials only reached an agreement on how to enforce the changes earlier this year. Ambrose urged patience. "Is it cleaned up totally?" he asked. "No, but we are doing it...it's not going to happen overnight."

Ambrose's answers to these questions, city officials said, were among the many segments that did not make it into the PBS documentary. But, despite the film, Ambrose said he is "excited" about what's happening in the department.

"I love the city. I was born and raised here," he said. "We are going in the right direction."

Newark police officers are on board with Ambrose's plans, and are anxious for additional changes from the Justice Department, Newark Fraternal Order of Police President James Stewart Jr. told NJ Advance Media.

"We've been on board since day one," said Stewart, who insisted that the culture of the NPD that led to the federal monitor "started at the top and went down." Though he said he has noticed some changes so far in the department, he acknowledged there is more to do.

"We look forward to when (the consent decree's mandates) finally fully roll out," Stewart said.

For the ACLU – the activist group that has been the most vocal critic of the Newark police and whose probe prompted the Justice Department's investigation – the jury is still out on whether or not reforms are happening, and what those reforms will amount to.

"The policing culture in the city is deeply ingrained, so the notion that change will happen overnight is unlikely," said Ari Rosmarin, the Public Policy Director at New Jersey's ACLU. 

About Ambrose, Rosmarin said he "talks a lot about reform and seems to understand the challenges before him. (But), it's too soon to tell whether or not he'll be able to make the changes that the mayor has outlined (a reality)."

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