Newark’s next public safety director has spent years working on reforms, building community trust

Posted Feb 16, 2021

The next Newark public safety director wants a hallmark of his new position to be building trust among the community.

And it won’t be much of a shift for Brian O’Hara, currently Newark’s deputy police chief, when he takes the helm of the city’s police and fire divisions, as well as the office of emergency management, on April 1. That’s because he’s been in charge of community engagement since about 2017 for the police division’s consent decree reforms.

“The foundation of policing and public safety is trust,” said O’Hara on Tuesday in Newark City Hall. “We’re going to work night and day to ensure that the residents of this community know that we have their backs and we want them to trust that through all the members of the department of public safety.”

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose will retire on March 31 after working 34 years in local law enforcement. Ambrose, who did not attend the ceremony since he was on vacation, told NJ Advance Media O’Hara’s appointment was a good choice.

“He has a good relationship with community people and he’s a reformer himself,” Ambrose said. “So I think it was definitely a good selection by the mayor.”

Mayor Ras Baraka announced O’Hara’s appointment  along with two newly created positions  in a small gathering in city council’s chambers Tuesday.

“I want to thank Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose for his distinguished leadership during his 30 plus years of service to Newark and Essex County,” Baraka said. “I welcome our new leadership team and know that we have promoted and are hiring the best individuals to continue the great work we are doing here in terms of building on the city’s successful crime reduction strategies.”

O’Hara has been with the department since 2001 and is the commanding officer of the Accountability, Engagement and Oversight Bureau of the consent decree. The city and police department entered into the reform agreement in 2016 after a federal investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional practices among officers.

He often leads community discussions with the police division’s federal monitor in churches  and since the COVID pandemic  over Zoom. He’s been known to be just a phone call away for some residents who are active in the community.

But even so, at least one resident who has attended some of those consent decree engagement meetings still has a wait-and-see approach to the O’Hara’s appointment.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Lisa Parker, who often speaks out at council meetings. “They make a bunch of promises and say it’s gonna get better. They’re putting systems in place but you continue to see the same behaviors, the same cover-up, the same of what we’ve got before.”

The mayor on Tuesday also created two new director positions through executive order: deputy director of community relations, a civilian position, and deputy police director of operations.

The next deputy director of community relations will be Rev. Ronald Slaughter of the St. James AME Church in Newark, who is also on the state Parole Board. He will report to O’Hara and foster community relations, work with Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board and assist with the consent decree.

“Newark is going to lead in this area and the mayor sees the importance of bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community,” Slaughter told NJ Advance Media.

Slaughter will also work to create a community committee consisting of two residents from each ward to improve relations in policing.

The next deputy police director of operations will be Capt. Sharonda Morris, who currently oversees the police division’s internal affairs. She’ll continue in that capacity and will also administer policies, coordinate with the budget and work on equity and inclusion.

“We’re talking about policy and the department,” said Morris, who has been with the department for 23 years. “And just looking at how the department is run and making sure everything is equal and fair.”

The new leadership also comes just a few weeks since Capt. Lee Douglas was promoted to acting police chief on Jan. 1 after Darnell Henry retired.

O’Hara, meanwhile, hopes to continue the reductions in crime that were seen under Ambrose’s tenure. He expects that the pandemic will pose new challenges in the coming months, especially in the summer when violence traditionally increases.

“We’re developing the plans to address these issues we know are coming,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-02-17 02:52:36 -0800