By Michael Hill
In this meet and greet at Rutgers Newark, Peter Harvey was direct about his federal court-appointed job of monitoring the Newark Police Department.
“This isn’t a ‘gotcha’ game, we aren’t trying to fail the police department,” he said. “So we will say here’s we’re going to examine, so get ready.”
Harvey is a former federal prosecutor, former New Jersey attorney general and former monitor of the New Jersey State Police. He and his team of university legal and criminal justice professors and researchers, international police monitors and former law enforcement executives have a 5-year mission to reform the police department.
“The goal here is to provide better safety and better customer service to the people who live in this city. Where we have better educated police officers, and where we have better trained police officers, we get a partnership with the community that makes the community safer. Honest to God, there are some officers who honestly do not know the law,” Harvey said.
Two years ago, the Justice Department found 75 percent of the stops by Newark police were unconstitutional — that officers routinely used excessive force and the internal affairs department rarely ruled against the officers.
“I want you to know that we’re paying considerable attention as a very early task to internal affairs. I have a simple view about this, and that is some of your best detectives should be in internal affairs. You need people who aren’t just smart, but who also are wise,” Harvey said.
Harvey must prepare a monitoring plan by early next year. Some of it will call for what the new public safety director already is pursuing: technological upgrades, dashboard and officer body cameras, re-training and drawing on best practices from other police departments. Harvey says Newark also must have an early warning system for abusive officers.
“If there’s a police officer out there doing something that that police officer shouldn’t be doing, there should be a supervisor somewhere who can call up that police officer’s name and badge number and look at that person’s interaction with you,” said Harvey.
He urged stakeholders to read the 77-page consent decree between the Justice Department and the city of Newark — the blueprint that will guide his focus groups — and public surveys of residents’ opinions and interactions with police and measure how the department is complying and changing.
“If in two consecutive quarters the task has been fulfilled, and we certify that that task has been fulfilled, it’s no longer monitored. So, what we hope to do, and this is what happens in consent decrees, as police departments get better in their processes and procedures you don’t monitor that anymore because they’ve demonstrated that that has been changed,” said Harvey.
Harvey says the quarterly reports he must file with the federal judge overseeing the case will go online and he wants every page free of what he calls “lawyerly jibberish.”
“As Malcolm X said: Make it plain. Make it plain,” Harvey said.
Harvey says it helps to have willing partners such as the mayor and the public safety director urging reform.
“We will change the way the Newark Police Department does business, the way the citizens are treated. It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman mentioned the findings just issued by the Department of Justice about its investigation in Baltimore, after the death of Freddy Gray in police custody. Fishman compared it to what the DOJ found in Newark.
“A remarkably similar report about what was going on over the last several years with that police department. I say not to say you know it’s not so bad here because it’s actually going on somewhere else, but to point out that this is a problem that has continued to replicate itself in lots of communities around the country. It’s a problem, a set of circumstances, that we all understand are long-standing, complicated, historical, difficult, thorny things to work through,” Fishman said.
“It’s going to take sustained effort over time,” Harvey said.
Harvey says he has no illusions about the task at hand and those who’ve come to this meet and greet offered their words about their level of confidence level in this department being reformed.
Newark resident Sean Reid has doubts about reform. Bridgeton police shot and killed his brother, Jerame, in a 2014 traffic stop.
“I don’t really see that happening. We’re going to see what happens. That’s all I can say,” Sean said.
But, Shelia Reid has hope.
“Newark is trying, but I want it to make a step further, so if this is an example of what has to be done, so be it,” Shelia said.
Larry Hamm leads the People’s Organization for Progress.
“I come out of the meeting feeling fairly confident that they will engage the task with the level of rigor that is required to change a very intransigent institution,” said Hamm.
Harvey says the change will not be cheap — Newark is paying the nearly $7.5 million for the monitoring.
“You’re either going to pay it in judgments from juries who say you shouldn’t have done that, or you’re going to pay it proactively to stop those kinds of incidents from happening,” Harvey said.