Can Newark Improve Relationship Between Police and Community?

Nearly half a century since the 1967 Newark riots, the relationship between the police and the people they serve is still contentious. Following a scathing Justice Department report finding police were routinely violating residents’ civil rights, a federal monitoring team was imposed to keep the peace and change the culture inside the police force. A member of that team is the President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Ryan Haygood. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Thank you for being with us.

Haygood: Thanks having me on your show.

Williams: I’m glad you’re hear. The federal monitor, Peter Harvey, said of Newark, “This is not a war zone.” Well, if it isn’t, it certainly is an uneasy truce. Can you really change the culture?

Haygood: Absolutely, I think. So I appreciate you having me on your show. I think this is a critical conversation that really is part of a national conversation about race and policing. And in particular, we’re thinking a lot here in Newark about how to re-image the relationship between law enforcement and the communities that they serve. A lot of what we’ve seen happen in communities across the country, some of the heartbreaking interactions with law enforcement have led to people in the community being killed really resonate with us here in the city of Newark. As we think about, how do we use what we’ve seen happen in other cities as a cautionary tell for us here and how do we re-imagine the relationship that can exist between law enforcement and community members?

Williams: And it really has to come from both sides, right?

Haygood: Absolutely.

Williams: You met with the community, you’ve explained what the federal consent decree means to them. What did you say? How did they take it?

Haygood: So, part of Peter Harvey’s vision as the federal monitor, overseeing the consent decree that the city entered into with the Department of Justice to transform its police department is really about getting community support. So the transformation can’t happen without community members being engaged in each step of the process. The early part of this work is conducting community survey. The survey is intended to give us a sense of how community members feel about the law enforcement and how law enforcement feels about the community as a base line.

Williams: Now that’s going on right now and you’ve already polled the police force.

Haygood: That’s right.

Williams: So, what do you getting from it so far?

Haygood: So, what we are learning from police officers is they really want to engage with community members to do their work. They really want to be held accountable. On things like body cameras, for example, the majority of police officers polled — and there are more than 1,000 in the city — really embrace the idea of having higher levels of transparency through body cameras.

Williams: Because it protects them as well as the people.

Haygood: Absolutely. It’s like a light switch. You know you turn on the light, it illuminates the challenges that exist both on the police officer’s side and them doing their job in the community. But what we want community members to know is that we can’t do this job effectively without them being vital voices in the process. So right now, community surveys are going out telephonically, online soon, through community focus groups and door-to-door surveys ultimately and we want the community to respond to the outreach that’s coming from the monitoring team to get their sense of how the relationship looks. This is the first survey in the series of five that will be issued over the next five years and our hope is that as the Newark Police Department undertakes to transform its policing practices the relationship will get better and will be reflected in future surveys.

Williams: You’re giving yourselves five years to get this thing done.

Haygood: It’s five years.

Williams: One of the things that Peter Harvey said was that many police officers don’t know the law. So when you’re tackling policies regarding stop-and-frisk and handling of property. How do you reform anything if they don’t know the law?

Haygood: I mean, to your point, one of the more devastating findings from the Department of Justice’s study was that 75 percent of police stops by the Newark Police Department were found to be unconstitutional and that 25 percent of those stops involved the excessive use of force. Part of that is a reflection of a number of officers on the force not understanding what constitutional interactions look like with community members. So part of the charge of Director [Anthony] Ambrose and the mayor who both leaned into this consent decree and leaned into the opportunity to transform policing here in Newark is to help equip their police officers with a concrete understanding. So constitutional is the base line. But not just what does a constitutional interaction look like? But what does a healthy interaction with community members look like between law enforcement and the communities that they serve.

Williams: We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary — hard to believe — of the Newark riots. You’ve been here 15 years. You know something about how Newark works. Have you seen a change in the relationship between the police and the community over that time?

Haygood: So we’re in early phases of this. What I will say is that, you know, the mayor I think, with his leadership, I think Director Ambrose, they’re both very serious about turning a page on what has been a very dark period in policing in Newark. And so I love your reference to the Newark Rebellion or the civil unrest that took place 50 years ago. Because what’s interesting to know is that the federal monitoring team was entered by a federal court on the 49th anniversary of the Newark Rebellion. And so I think it’s interesting to think about the way in which that rebellion really was sparked by law enforcement abuse by a then black cab driver. And Newark residents have been calling for this moment, this opportunity to transform policing in the city for 50 years. And so I think this moment, this opportunity, is now upon us.

Williams: And the timing, given the national outlook of what’s happened over the year 2016 couldn’t be better right?

Haygood: That’s right. I think that’s right. I think this opportunity both reflects a real challenge we’ve had for almost 50 years, but also an opportunity to turn the page on that dark period of history.

Williams: Mayor after mayor has said Newark is undergoing a renaissance. We’ve got new buildings, great performing arts and art spaces. We’ve got, our schools are getting better. Can it ever really have a real renaissance if we don’t fix this?

Haygood: I think it can have a real renaissance with the various important pieces in place that exist now. One is the political will to move in a new direction. The second piece is accountability to ensure that the political will is realized. So here we have an opportunity to really re-imagine the relationship between law enforcement and community members and a mechanism through the consent decree and Peter Harvey’s leadership to oversee the consent decree to ensure that what’s outlined in that document in each of Newark’s five wards.

Williams: Ryan Haygood, thank you for being here.

Haygood: Thanks for having me.