In Newark’s May 10 election, a former officer’s history of force raises concerns over candidacy

Published: Apr. 26, 2022

When the U.S. Justice Department concluded in 2014 that Newark cops routinely violated residents’ civil rights and used unjustified force, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a civilian complaint review board with subpoena power over the police.

So some people are perplexed over Baraka’s endorsement of former officer Louis Weber as an East Ward city council candidate on his slate in the city’s May 10 municipal election.

“It’s totally inconsistent with what he portrays to the public on where he stands with police,” said Sheila Montague, who is running against Baraka in a bid to become Newark’s first woman mayor. “How do you ask for subpoena power with the CCRB, but then you back a candidate like Weber. That’s ridiculous.”

Weber, 36, used force more than any other Newark officer during five years surveyed by NJ Advance Media for The Force Report, an interactive database with information on every officer from every New Jersey police department from 2012 through 2016.

Weber logged 35 use-of-force incidents, averaging seven a year during that time. It was twice the department-wide rate of 3.5 incidents per year — and in reality, his rate was even higher when considering he retired in 2015.

Use of force includes restraint holds, take-downs, punches, kicks, baton strikes, or gunshots. Officers are trained to use force, which in itself does not amount to misconduct.

‘He’s on our ticket’

Baraka, who last year called for passage of a state bill allowing municipalities to establish civilian review boards, rejected the notion that his endorsement of Weber undercut his support for CCRBs.

“He’s on our ticket,” Baraka said. “Of course, we vetted him, and we went through the whole process. He’s not a police officer anymore.”

Weber declined to be interviewed for this article. But his campaign manager, Deidre Knight, dismissed The Force Report data, insisting it “compared apples to oranges” by failing to account for officers’ varying assignments, which can influence how often they use force.

“Police officers have a wide range of duties involving a wide range of situations requiring the use of force,” Knight wrote in an email. “To give an extreme example, you would expect that officers assigned to traffic duty would have a much lower incidence of use of force than officers who daily deal with violent offenders.”

“During the period in question,” she added, “Mr. Weber was assigned to the Major Crimes Division, Narcotics, Robbery, Homicide Division and SWAT unit, assignments that daily exposed him to violent situations.”

4 candidates, 3 of them cops

The East Ward council race is one of the most competitive in next month’s election, partly because the seat is being vacated by its longtime occupant, Councilman Augusto Amador, 73, who has health issues and is stepping down after six terms and 24 years on the ruling body.

Posters of the candidates vie for attention in restaurant windows along Ferry Street and Wilson Avenue and on billboards and balconies throughout the ward.

In addition to Weber, the other candidates include Jonathan Seabra of the Seabra Foods supermarket family, who ran for the seat unsuccessfully in 2014 and 2018.

There are also two other former police officers running for the ward seat. One is Anthony Campos, a 30-year police veteran appointed chief by Baraka in 2014 before he retired in 2016. Campos ran for council in 2018, when he narrowly lost to Amador in a run-off election.

The fourth East Ward candidate is Michael Silva, a detective who retired from the force last year after much of his tenure involved community policing. Amador endorsed Silva in September after announcing he would not seek another term.

“I think councilman is just an extension of what I was doing,” said Silva, 53, a divorced Ironbound native who shares custody of his 14-year-old son. “I worked hard. I gave all I had for this community.”

Campos and Seabra did not respond to requests for comment. Amador also failed to respond.

Silva had five use-of-force incidents during the five years surveyed by the Force Report, less than a third of the department-wide average. He said he never worked with Weber and declined to comment on his former colleague’s record of force. But Silva said his record was a legitimate issue for voters to consider.

“When someone decides to run for public office,” Silva wrote in an email, “it is understood that the public has the right to examine their professional background as an indicator of their ability to serve constituents.”

Lawsuits dismissed and settled

Even before the period surveyed by the Force Report, Weber’s police conduct was the subject of at least two lawsuits, one of them involving a fatal shooting. That suit was dismissed, while the other, over an alleged beating, was settled.

The first suit involved the death of a 40-year-old Newark man, Steven Vierra, on Feb. 13, 2009. Authorities released a statement at the time saying Vierra tried to rob Newark police officers while brandishing a gun. A subsequent lawsuit filed by his family in federal court charged that Vierra was shot in the head and the back by Weber and a fellow officer, who then left the scene as he lay bleeding.

The suit was dismissed, according to the city’s law department and Raymond Sussman, the Brooklyn lawyer who represented the family. The law department did not provide a reason for the dismissal, and Sussman declined to elaborate on the case.

Knight added that the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office investigated the incident and “found the shooting was reasonable under the circumstances.”

The other suit involved an incident on April 9, 2008 that alleged Weber and two fellow officers beat the mother of a drug suspect when she tried to intervene in her son’s arrest after the officers failed to identify themselves as police.

The city’s law department said the suit was settled for $8,750. But even then, Knight said, the plaintiff did not identify Weber as the person who assaulted her.

Both suits were included among several hundred actions against the department cited by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in its successful 2010 petition in federal court seeking a Justice Department investigation, which was granted and led to reforms and a monitor.

Knight said Weber joined the Newark PD at 18, straight out of St. Benedict’s Prep, a well-known private high school in Newark. His record also included departmental honors for saving his partner’s life and, separately, the life of a child stuck in a burning building.

Knight said Weber patrolled the city for 11 years before retiring early due to an on-duty injury in 2015.

His post-retirement years included briefly competing as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, with a 2-2 career record, and his final bout was on July 15, 2017, according to his page.

Weber is now the civilian executive director of the NPD’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Unit, which investigates liquor license violations.

Cass Gonmiah, a veteran City Hall gadfly and local political observer said Weber’s place on a ticket with the mayor and other incumbents gives him an advantage regardless of his record.

“It doesn’t matter what your background is when you’re running on the ticket of the people already in office,” she said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-04-27 03:18:23 -0700