By Michael Hill
On a rainy, cleansing night — when crime typically is low in Newark — Lt. Wilbur Cole and Pastor Pablo Pizzaro take NJTV News on a ride-along.
Pizzaro of the Lighthouse Assembly of God has ventured into the field with the police at least 30 times and often found the public welcoming a member of the clergy.
“When they see, hey! That’s my pastor. I’ve seen him on Sunday behind the pulpit but now he’s in uniform or he’s riding next to so and so who actually was running after me and we say no, no he’s cool, he’s with us and they say, ‘All right pastor.’ A lot of the grandmas like that, the uncles and the different people in the community and so now you’re not getting that hesitation like, ‘I don’t talk to cops,'” said Pizzaro.
The city’s hope is the public seeing cops and clergy together will build ties and trust between communities and a department under the microscope of a federal monitor for reform.
“Here goes one of our shooting protocols,” said Cole.
This was the scene of a shooting this summer. So why — months later — are officers so visible here?
Cole says, “Criminals might be thinking about any kind of retaliation and this is one way to stem that.”
Cole — 23-plus years on the force — is counting down almost to the second when he’ll retire. He’s got second thoughts though.
“The department is really going through a metamorphosis and it’s a good thing too. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re partnering with a lot of community organizations, especially with our clergy. We’re reinstituting a lot of our block watches to get more in tune with the community and have the community get more in tune with the community as well and it’s a way that we build that trust,” he said.
Up the street from headquarters, Kings Family Restaurant families eating dinner, the lieutenant does his meet and greet. At a table, Newark’s old guard talks about how Newark is different than other cities.
“We don’t go out shooting our officers, you know. Officers put their life on the line and they all grow up in our communities. Did you see how the lieutenant came up and shook my hand? That’s what it’s about,” Murad Muhammad said.
“And by the same token you say we don’t go out and shoot our officers, nor do they go out and shoot us,” added another Newark resident.
In the north ward at the Lombardi Community Center, in Pizzaro’s neighborhood, the steps and sounds of salsa fill a huge room the city has donated. Next door, the Puerto Rican Day Parade nonprofit’s headquarters and an uber-energetic president, Nelson “Butchie” Nieves, talks about policing today.
“The one thing I want when it comes to Newark police is that it gives now a new feeling that the police department is caring. Before it was like ‘yeah whatever, there goes a crime going’ and now you can see it. I sit here in the office and I see the cars flying back and forth. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want,'” he said.
Today, the federal monitoring team led by state Attorney General Peter Harvey begins surveying Newark residents, asking what they think of the Newark Police Department.
Andrea McCharistian of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice said, “I think what we really hope for is to just get a feel for what people on the ground, people from the actual community, are thinking. Because right now we have the monitoring team’s thoughts, we have the Newark Police Department’s thoughts, we have advocacy organizations’ thoughts but I think the most important thing is that the consent decree and the reforms are going to effect the community. Once the monitoring team leaves, we need to know what the community who’s left with the police department in the state it is is actually experiencing. And so I think that’s what’s so important about this baseline.”
The federal monitor also has surveyed Newark police officers to capture their thoughts about the city they serve, their willingness to reform and the knowledge of the laws they enforce — and that govern them as well.