NJPAC Hosts Frank Discussion About Race and Policing

By Michael Hill

The goal: bridging the gap between police and the neighborhoods they serve. The vehicle: encouraging stakeholders to take part in a series of critical conversations about race and policing.

“Which may be difficult to have but are essential if we are to affect real, sustained and lasting change,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Two organizations invited hundreds to NJPAC to talk and listen and share ideas about reforming the Newark Police Department. Two years ago, the Justice Department found wide-scale constitutional abuses on the street and an internal affairs department that did little about it. The result: an independent federal monitor or watchdog for the police department and a consent decree with a long to-do list, calling for, among other things, civilian oversight of the police department.

It’s clear from the conversation a lot of stock for reform is in Newark having what some consider the strongest civilian complaint review board in the nation, at least on paper. Moderator Sandra King questioned the mayor about likely legal challenges to the board’s authority.

“What’s the chance that you’re going to get past those?” she asked.

“I can’t speak for the court but do think that what we have organized is sound. I think it, you know, will stand public and court scrutiny,” said Mayor Ras Baraka.

It’s a board some have fought decades for and consider a cornerstone of change.

“How realistic is it that we actually will have the kind of board that the mayor has introduced?” King asked.

“Well, I’m hoping, and I think that with some careful manipulation on his part and some pressure on our part, we will get what we need to have to make what all of these people — the shoulders upon which we stand — to make them happy, happy, glad wherever they are in the universe,” said Junius Williams, chairman of the Newark Celebration 350 Committee.

Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose says half of his police force may not like or embrace the idea of civilians judging their conduct, but he does and wholeheartedly.

“What’s going on in American policing today, let me tell you, first of all I’m for a CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board]. I think what’s going on, to build trust in the community, that’s the only way to start. I could see the CCRB moving forward. There probably will be some litigation, but I will work with my staff to make sure that we have a smooth transition and get it done,” he said.

Federal monitor and former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey says the police department can be reformed in five years because the city has a willing mayor and public safety director unlike what happened in Oakland, Calif.

“And the federal judge out there got so frustrated with the city of Oakland that he removed the leadership of the police department and he put in a receiver for the police department because they were recalcitrant,” Harvey said.

Rod Brunson is on Harvey’s team of monitors and is the dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers-Newark. He said there’s a misunderstanding about black and brown neighborhoods.

“People of color are not anti-police. They want a type of policing that recognizes their humanity, that doesn’t start with police officers cursing, that doesn’t start with police officers pushing them against the wall, going through their pockets, asking them to lay on the ground,” he said.

There was a time in America when it was assumed that a more diverse police force would improve police/community relations. A majority of the Newark Police Department is African-American and Latino. King asked why does the department still have the issues such as the ones the Justice Department discovered?

“We’re operating in a machine, right? And it doesn’t matter who fits in that machine, the machine will still work. It’s a system. It’s a system that we have to realize that we’re living in is an anti-black system. It’s all about anti-blackness. It’s an interlocking system of behaviors, practices, policies and behaviors that work to dehumanize and oppress black people for the benefit of non-black people, specifically, white people. And so it doesn’t matter how many black officers are in the police institution, the culture remains the same. The policies remain the same. The mentality remains the same,” said Zellie Imani, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Paterson.

Others on the panel said a culture change needs to happen within the police department and the hope for change begins by having frank conversations.