With stroke of a pen, long-awaited civilian review board becomes reality in Newark

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 30, 2015

Baraka signs the executive order at the close of a ceremony and press conference at Newark City Hall Thursday morning.

 

NEWARK — Mayor Ras Baraka today signed an executive order officially establishing the city's first citizen complaint review board — a move advocates say creates nearly unparalleled oversight of its beleaguered police force.

Joined at City Hall by members of the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and other organizations who lobbied for the board, Baraka said he hoped it would help strengthen a sense of accountability for the department during a time when national stories have begun to erode public trust in law enforcement.

"We're here because people get shot in the back 8 times while they're running away from the police. We're here because people can be choked to death on the street while saying that they can't breathe. We're here because people can get their spines severed and their throats crushed in custody and we still have a question about what actually took place. That's why we're here," he said.

The 11-member board is designed to provide additional civilian oversight over the department following a damning report released by the U.S. Department of Justice in July that found it routinely engaged in excessive force and violated citizen's constitutional rights.

Other speakers praised Baraka's courage for creating the board, noting that citizens had been pushing for civilian oversight of the police department for nearly 50 years, and called it essential to the rebuilding of trust between law enforcement and the public that was lost over much of that period.

"This is about recognizing that the very best way to keep neighborhoods safe is to ensure transparency and accountability in the way police do their work," said Milly Silva, executive vice president of the 1199 SEIU healthcare workers union.

A copy of the order was not immediately provided to media present for the signing, but Baraka has said it would grant citizens the option of directing their complaints to the board 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.

The board will issue a determination as to whether an act of misconduct occurred, which will be forwarded to Police Director Eugene Venable, who can issue a final decision on punishment using a so-called "discipline matrix" that creates guidelines for certain offenses and their severity.

Baraka said Venable would only have the power to forgo any discipline if he can establish that the board's decision was clearly in error.

Udi Ofer, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, said the matrix system was key to ensuring the board was more than a paper tiger, and could avoid pitfalls of boards in other cities. As an example, he offered New York, where members of the police administration routinely decline to impose discipline recommended by the city's civilian board.

"One of the most important things that is now in the executive order is the power to make sure that discipline sticks," Ofer said. "That is what has led to the failures of other CCRBs across this country."

The board will 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, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, People's Organization for Progress, Ironbound Community Corporation, La Casa de Don Pedro and a local clergy member.

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

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.

The order also comes after a series of meetings to seek public input on the board, after which Baraka sought to quell fears that residents might face retaliation from police if they sought to utilize the board.

The mayor said he and other officials will soon begin work on codifying the board into city law, in order to ensure it remained in place after his administration and beyond.

James Stewart Jr., president of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police, maintained that the imposition of the board constitutes a change to the department's disciplinary process, which must be negotiated with the union, and that the executive order may be a violation of state law.

"We anticipated this coming, but this is only the first step. We've got a long way to go before this gets hashed out one way or the other," he said.

No official timeline on when the board might begin reviewing complaints has been offered, though Baraka has said it would likely be later this year at the earliest.

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