Frontline, New Yorker Contributor Followed Newark Police For A Year

Now to “Policing the Police”. The deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police officers have sparked a national debate about race, policing and civil rights. The Department of Justice has intervened to impose reform in several police department’s including Newark’s. Accused of rampant and routine civil rights violations in one of the most violent cities in America. A “Frontline Documentary” team embedded for a year with that department. Historian and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb went on a ride-along and witnessed a “stop and frisk”, then showed it to a police supervisor.

Williams: Jelani Cobb joins us now. What was your initial reaction to what you saw on the ride-along and did talking to the supervisor change your perception?

Cobb: No it didn’t. I was very disturbed by it because the young man was on his way home. He did not have any contraband on him and he was kind of aggressively taken to the ground. There was no point at which he had done anything that noted that he was a threat to the general community before they stopped him. Certainly not a threat to the six officers who surrounded him at the time that they got out of the car.

Williams: The police officers you shadowed seemed to have no qualms with their policing and saw no need to change how they went about what they termed “field inquiries”. Did any of that surprise you?

Cobb: Um, it didn’t surprise me entirely. I think that they were very secure in the idea that they were doing what was needed to make the community safer. You know, on some level people can make that argument I suppose but they were also results of one kind of needling technicality called the constitution. I think that was an afterthought to me in the activities that were taking place.

Williams: Your takeaway from this: the challenges of internal and external community relations, if you will. Is the Newark Department up to it?

Cobb: I think it is a difficult task. I think it’s possible for them to be successful here but I don’t have any illusions and they certainly do not have any illusions that this is going to be something that is a quick fix or something that is relatively easy to do.

Williams: Easy to do if they had the equipment but there’s a scene where Mayor Ras Baraka’s walking through a dispatch station where the lines are down and they’re handing information to each other on wads of paper?

Cobb: Yeah and that’s another part of this. When we talk about the efforts of police reform, some of it’s also the reform you can afford, you know? It’s like an old New Yorker cartoon where there’s a lawyer asking a guy how much justice can you afford? In this instance the ideal kind of policing would be probably a more expensive proposition than the city of Newark has in its coffers.

Williams: OK, Jelani Cobb thanks for being with us and you can watch “Frontline: Policing the Police” on Thirteen at 10 p.m. tonight and again on Thursday at 3:30 a.m.