For Newark residents, departure of captain who embodies community policing is ‘bittersweet’

Published: Feb. 20, 2022

It was Rasheen Peppers’ first day as a civilian after a 25-year career with the Newark Police Department. He had served stints as a beat cop, a fugitive-hunting reality t.v. star, and commander of the police district where he lives with his family, before retiring last month at the rank of captain at 48.

Dressed in a black beanie and jacket with Newark Police logos on a sunny but cold weekday afternoon, the 6-foot, 280-pound retired captain walked along Lyons Avenue in the city’s South Ward, past the Ayan African Hair Salon, the storefront Life-Giving Church of God, the Faso Supermarket with its halal meat, and the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street.

He stopped into the Ikeja African Market & Bakery. Inside the immaculately maintained Nigerian grocery the shelves brimmed with rice, yams, cassava flour and other staples of the West African republic. Princess Tinubu, a native of Nigeria, opened it last year. She smiled from behind the counter and thick plexiglass shield when Peppers pushed open the door and asked how things were going. They were going well, she told him.

“He’s a wonderful man,” Tinubu said, aware of Peppers’ retirement. “I’m not too happy about it.”

She’s not the only one.

In an era when law enforcement and elected officials routinely pay lip service to community policing, Peppers’ visibility, compassion and willingness to engage with residents, business people and those at risk of committing crimes have earned him a reputation as the embodiment of it.

Now, some in the South Ward worry that they may be losing a human bridge between the community and the police department.

“It’s bittersweet, because I think there’s something left for him to do,” said Sandra Hughes, a member of the Historic Weequahic Neighborhood Association, a residents group. “With the approaches he’s taken here in the South Ward, I think, long-term, we would have seen great results in a ward that struggled for decades.”

Peppers’ departure became official Jan. 31. He said he retired because it became clear that his style of leadership was not what the department wanted.

“The way I chose to lead in my position was not in alignment with others’,” he said. “However, I am confident the department ideally embraces implementing community policing.”

“Let me be clear,” he added, “I am not retiring from the community of Newark. I plan to be a continued service to Newark and the surrounding communities.”

Asked to comment on Peppers’ departure, Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara praised him in an email as “a model of dedicated service to our new officers,” and thanked him for his 25 years with the department.

O’Hara said community policing combined with violence reduction strategies has helped lower crime in Newark by 58% since 2014 when Mayor Ras Baraka took office. He said other community policing measures have included assigning two officers to focus solely on identifying each precinct’s needs and concerns.

Peppers has worked in the South Ward for the last decade, including commanding the 5th Precinct’s 140 officers this past year. His efforts to be visible and accessible have included frequent walks and countless individual encounters.

At a series of “Captain’s Corner” events during the warmer months, Peppers used the sidewalk gatherings to speak about ongoing neighborhood issues and recent incidents, present oversized checks to community organizations or families in need, host health screenings and other services, and bust dance moves to music pumped through a PA.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services doesn’t include dancing in its definition. The office defines community policing as “a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues.”

But Peppers’ steps do seem consistent with the kind of engagement that experts say is critical to effective community policing. It’s a philosophy 42% of departments nationwide have adopted, with a much higher percentage among those in larger, urban areas, according to the non-profit National Police Foundation in Arlington, Va.

“To some, just hearing the communities’ concerns may be considered community policing, but that really falls short of what it is intended to be,” the foundation’s president, Jim Burch, said in an email. “As reflected by the U.S. Department of Justice, true community policing requires us to not only work together regularly and proactively, but for relationships to build trust and mutual respect.”

One example of the community’s trust in Peppers followed a Dec. 30 incident involving police and a group of young men who questioned why officers had detained youths on a street near Weequahic Park.

After authorities arrested several of them, a South Ward community activist who knew of Peppers’ reputation reached out to him for any information he might have on their status.

“I don’t know any other officer I would have trusted like that,” said Vines, 31, who runs the Earn to Learn program at Weequahic High School. “I’m still trying to get him to stay.”

Mark Wright, a 44-year-old South Ward resident whose son wears his hair in dreadlocks, said Peppers’ refusal to judge others on their appearance made Wright soften his view of all police.

“Most people in Newark with dreadlocks, they’re considered a gang member,” Wright said. “But, if it’s Peppers, he’s not going to treat you like that. And now, I look at cops, and I give them a chance.”

On Lyons Avenue, men and women walking or standing on the worn concrete sidewalk greeted Peppers warmly as he passed by.

“Hey, Pep!” said more than one, using the nickname familiar to residents and fans of the A&E reality TV series, “Manhunter: Fugitive Task Force,” in which Peppers had a recurring role in the late 2000′s.

Some asked him for money, and he handed one older man a bill. But he said no to Brandon Waiters. Waiters, 27, was a point guard for the Newark Central High School Blue Devils who graduated in 2012. Now, depending on his physiological state, he can barely control his arms and legs, and he has no job or permanent address.

Peppers said he wouldn’t give Waiters cash because it’s not food he would spend it on. So the two went into a bodega, and Peppers gave money to the man at the register. He told him it was for whatever Waiters ordered from the deli counter and to keep the change for the next time Waiters stopped in.

Of Peppers, Waiters said, “He makes sure we’re safe. I love him.”

Peppers said he’s tried repeatedly to get Waiters off the street and into programs that might keep him off, without success. He was quiet for a while after that.

Peppers, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University, said he wasn’t sure what lay ahead for him, though it would likely be related to law enforcement, possibly teaching or consulting.

He said his retirement was “bittersweet,” leaving him sorry to say goodbye to his career, his colleagues, and his official responsibility for the people of the 5th Precinct. But he also feels a sense of accomplishment for having served his home city in the style he thought best.

“Having the opportunity to try to change the image between the police and the community, that was one of my big reasons for staying here, for never leaving,” Peppers said over coffee at King’s Family Restaurant on Lyons Avenue, a favorite haunt, where he busted a team of burglars soon after arriving on the beat.

By never leaving, Peppers was talking about the department and the city where he was born and raised and continues to live with his family in the South Ward.

“I just felt as though, when we’re working here for ... an underserved community, and I’m making a decent living, I buy a house here, pay taxes here, [I can] take the same money that I’m taking from that community, put it back into that community, rather than go somewhere else, to another community, where they probably don’t even want me there,” he said. “So, I thought it was my civic duty.”

“I also wanted to be in a neighborhood where children can have someone to look up to,” he added. “Because if all the people here that are successful, that are career-minded or goal-oriented leave, then what do the children have to look up to?”

He’s a case in point. Peppers earned $196,244 in 2019, including salary, overtime and other departmental pay, according to NJ Advance Media’s Paycheck police database. That’s compared to Newark’s median household income of $35,199 for the same period, according to Census data.

And he makes no secret of his success, nor his taste for the good life. He drives a late-model BMW and often spends Sunday afternoons relaxing with a cigar and a glass of bourbon at his local smoking club, Green Room Cigars. He has a taste for expensive cologne, and is fond of quoting Socrates.

You’ll also find him in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, where he said his regular-guy visibility had also contributed to his community police work.

“There’s nothing like going to the same ShopRite as the people that you serve, and you get in there and we’re fighting over the same box of Fruity Pebbles, right?” he said with a laugh, though his point was serious. “It changes the relationship. That young man or young woman that I may have to go to the corner and say, ‘You guys gotta move today,’ they’ll respect it. Because, you know, ‘We see this guy at ShopRite, we see him at Pathmark.’”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-21 02:55:28 -0800