Newark, N.J., prepared to accept federal police monitor

CrimeLaw EnforcementJustice SystemU.S. Department of JusticeSocial IssuesAmerican Civil Liberties UnionRacism
The mayor of Newark, N.J., says the city won't oppose putting a federal monitor over its police department
'We're not opposed to anything the federal government may suggest,' Newark mayor says of police monitor plan

Mayor Ras Baraka said Wednesday that he would not oppose appointment of a federal monitor to oversee reforms in New Jersey's largest police department, one of the fixes the Justice Department is likely to mandate following a years-long inquiry into allegations of abuse, corruption and faulty internal affairs investigations in the force.

The findings of a Justice Department investigation have been presented to Baraka, who took office July 1, according to multiple sources involved in the investigation. No agreement between the city and the Justice Department has been signed, the sources said, but at Wednesday's news conference, the mayor indicated an announcement was imminent.

"I understand we may have a monitor … but we're not opposed to anything the federal government may suggest," said Baraka, whose city of 281,000 people has struggled with high crime, a police force gutted by layoffs and souring community-police relations.

Federal intervention in police practices has become more frequent under the Obama administration, but it is not common.

A report last year from the Police Executive Research Forum said that since 2000, 19 police departments have come under some form of federal oversight. They included forces in Seattle, New Orleans, Oakland, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2001, the Los Angeles Police Department was placed under a monitor after federal officials ordered reforms to address problems of excessive force, racial profiling, evidence tampering and perjury. The decree was not lifted until May 2013.

The Justice Department began its investigation in Newark after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a 96-page petition in 2010 outlining police behavior that it said "had left citizens dead, permanently injured, and otherwise damaged" and destroyed careers of department employees subjected to discrimination, retaliation and abusive working conditions.

A report to be released as part of that investigation will focus on shortcomings within the Newark Police Department's internal affairs unit, officer corruption and the force's use of stop-and-frisk, according to the same multiple sources who were not authorized to speak about the investigation.

Stop-and-frisk is the controversial strategy of proactively stopping and searching residents who are often black or Latino as long as there is "reasonable suspicion" that a crime is about to be committed.

Rebekah Carmichael, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Newark, said the Justice Department's investigation "is nearly completed, and we hope to announce the results and any necessary reforms in the near future." She declined further comment. Calls seeking comment from city police officials were not immediately returned.

Department critics say an outside monitor is crucial to transforming the force. Udi Ofer, executive director of the New Jersey ACLU, said it would be "an affirmation of … our contention that problems are so grave and so widespread that they need federal intervention."

But he sees it as a first step in a long process. "We want to be sure any reforms outlast any police leader and federal monitor," said Ofer, calling for civilian oversight to be "permanent, strong and independent."

Defenders of police said they also welcomed federal oversight if it could change a management system they say has forced officers to focus on arresting and ticketing people rather than improving community-police relations.

"We're driven by numbers," said James Stewart Jr., president of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police, a union representing officers. Stewart said cops who didn't show high arrest and ticketing numbers feared losing out on overtime. "There is without a doubt the perception that 'I need to bring a body in.'"

One result, said Stewart, is resentment among residents, who are less inclined to cooperate with law enforcement.

Baraka agreed on the need for "community oriented" policing and said his goal was to put more police on the streets and to cooperate with whatever federal investigators recommend.

"We're not going in kicking and screaming," he said.

The agreement, when complete, would have to be signed off on by city officials and the Justice Department, according to Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on pattern or practice investigations. The agreement itself, which could be labeled a consent decree or consent order or memorandum of understanding, would stipulate the reforms that the police department would have to enact and the provisions for the appointment of a monitor, and outline the process for selecting a court-appointed monitor, he said.

The agreement will also have to be ratified by a U.S. District Court judge, Walker said.

The ACLU's petition focused on January 2008 to July 2010, when Cory Booker — now a U.S. senator — was in his first term as mayor after running on promises to crack down on crime. But Ofer said the problems dated to the 1960s, when riots sparked by allegations of police brutality and racism left 26 people dead.

From 2000 to 2009, Newark police received 1,675 allegations of serious misconduct against its officers. Only 43 of those resulted in disciplinary action, and just two resulted in criminal prosecutions, according to records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

During an 18-month span in 2008 and 2009, 261 complaints were filed accusing officers of excessive force, discrimination and improper searches and seizures, according to the petition. It said one was upheld. The petition detailed 407 allegations of police misconduct, including beatings and other assaults. Among them:

• "Nashawn Brown was, without cause, assaulted and battered by Newark Police Officers causing severe, permanent, and disabling injuries" on Sept. 15, 2008.

•In March 2010, Charles W. Jones was attacked by an officer while in custody. "The severe beating left Jones' jaw broken in two places, so that it had to be wired shut and a metal plate inserted in his chin. The officer's beating also knocked out a tooth."

• In April 2006, Mary Cheeseboro was having a barbecue with family members when she says she saw police assaulting juvenile occupants of a car. "When she asked the police to stop this assault, the officers turned on her and her family, handcuffing her and throwing her daughters on the ground and Macing them."

Ofer said some things have changed for the better. He noted that in 2013, the department began making public its stop-and-frisk statistics. But he said the monthly reports often are published late.

Still, the statistics underscore critics' allegations that a disproportionate number of African Americans are stopped without being accused of crimes.

Earlier this year, the ACLU said that blacks made up 75% of those stopped in Newark, even though they comprise just 52% of the population.

On a run-down street in downtown Newark, whose boarded-up storefronts speak to the city's economic ills, Juarez Hill said he understood both sides of the debate. As a black man with dreadlocks hanging to his hips and tattoos covering his arms, Hill said he frequently was stopped and questioned.

"I get profiled because of how I look," Hill said. "They'll look at me and say 'You live here? Where are you going?'

"They should be monitored just like everybody else," he said of the police.

But Hill, a code enforcement officer for the city, also said officers did not frisk him after he displayed his job credentials.

"It's all with the individual — you've got good cops, you've got bad cops," Hill said.

"They need to be governed," said Marlon Anderson, who owns a barbershop on Branford Place, once a shopping destination but now a mish-mash of small stores and dilapidated buildings.

Anderson said too many police officers do not live in Newark. "They really don't care about us because they come from elsewhere," he said, lamenting the lack of familiar cops walking the beat.

Stewart, the union president, said he too would like to see more cops on the streets getting to know locals. But Newark has lost officers to layoffs and retirement and has about 1,030 now, compared with more than 1,300 in 2010, he said.

Last year, the city had 111 killings, its deadliest year since 1990.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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