Newark’s mayor: This bill is not a threat to police | Opinion

Posted Jun 28, 2021

By Ras Baraka

Mayor Ras Baraka says the history of police violence against African Americans and other minorities warrants the kind of systematic changes found in the Civilian Complaint Review Board bill that legislators have tabled. "... it is incomprehensible that New Jersey is out of step with many other progressive states and the federal government in making independent oversight of law enforcement a civil rights priority."
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In a week where Derek Chauvin was sentenced to what many think was an insufficient sentence for murdering George Floyd, and the statue my city just unveiled of Mr. Floyd was desecrated by a white supremacist group, the New Jersey Legislature offered no comfort for those seeking more transparent law enforcement accountability by tabling the Civilian Complaint Review Board bill.

This is unfortunate, especially in a state controlled by Democrats, and one that at times displays a progressive agenda to aid undocumented people, the formerly incarcerated and others who need systematic changes in government to help them thrive and lead healthy, successful lives. The history of police violence against African Americans and other minorities warrants such systematic changes.

For those reasons, it is incomprehensible that New Jersey is out of step with many other progressive states and the federal government in making independent oversight of law enforcement a civil rights priority.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, police reform has dominated the national conversation and President Biden’s Department of Justice is again focused on independent oversight of wayward police departments repairing the damage done by the Trump administration, which had no interest protecting the rights of citizens in police abuse matters.

The desire for such monitoring of police is nothing new here in Newark. My father talked about creating a civilian review board after the uprising of 1967. Eight years later, in 1975, Newark’s efforts to create a public board to scrutinize cases of police brutality was blocked by powerful police unions.

My administration tried again in 2016, by passing an ordinance that created a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) with power to subpoena officers and internal police documents, and the freedom to investigate cases of brutality and abuse simultaneously with Internal Affairs. Without those powers, the CCRB would be a paper tiger.

The police unions sued to stop it and after protracted legal machinations, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that only the Legislature can remedy the situation.

Last month, the “Civilian Complaint Review Board” bill (A4656/S2963), was introduced in the Legislature by Assemblywoman Angela V. McKnight, Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly, and Assemblywoman Shavonda E. Sumter in the Assembly, and Senator Ron Rice in the Senate. It was a courageous effort to take the fight for social justice out of the courts and put it in the hands of the lawmakers.

Unfortunately, their fellow lawmakers failed to vote on the measure, and hopefully, it will be re-introduced during the next Legislative session in the fall.

What I find hard to understand is why the police unions and certain legislators find this concept so threatening, because to allow such civilian oversight can only benefit the police.

First, the transparency and accountability of such oversight will build trust with the community, whose members will no longer have to fear their complaints are being swept under the rug.

Second, independent oversight can also aid police internal affairs departments in weeding out the officers who show a propensity for violence — those few who give all cops a bad name. It can also specify that retraining might be necessary for police whose actions have not yet reached egregious levels.

Other progressive states and the federal government seem to understand that allowing only the police to police themselves is problematic. This type of system can be easily corrupted and succumb to cover-ups or turn blind eyes to officers with histories of abuse and brutality.

If Minneapolis had civilian oversight, George Floyd would be alive today because Derek Chauvin, who had numerous complaints against him, would have either been fired or retrained, and police nationwide would not have suffered the demoralizing consequences of this one bad cop’s reprehensible actions.

It is important to note here that while the Legislature tabled the CCRB bill, it passed other police-related legislation that allows police to review body camera footage before writing their reports. This is a blow to transparency because it gives potentially offending officers a chance to alter their reports based on available footage, which may not tell the whole story — which, incidentally, is a defense police often use when footage is incriminating. This was a step backward in building trust between police and the community, and especially irritating that it passed while the CCRB bill, a giant step forward, was ignored.

I hope the Legislature makes an honest effort to reconsider the CCRB bill in its next session. It must be seen not as a threat to police, but as the primary duty and responsibility of the government, which is to protect all citizens and residents against forces from which they cannot protect themselves. A failure to enact this bill is an abdication of the very essence of why government exists.

Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of the City of Newark.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-06-30 03:34:24 -0700