Some signs of progress seen in court-monitored reforms of Newark police

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Peter Harvey, the former state attorney general who’s overseeing a court-supervised reform of the Newark Police Department, told a community gathering this week that a survey showed city residents were seeing some progress in the effort.

Harvey — named as an independent monitor after the federal Department of Justice in 2014 found that city officers had engaged in a pattern of illegal conduct including unlawful stops and arrests, excessive force and retaliation — reported that telephone interviews with some 700 residents revealed that most felt safer in their homes and fewer felt police would use excessive force on them.

At the same time, though, Harvey told those who gathered at a city church for one of a series of mandatory public update sessions on the effort, that in other areas, more work remained to be done.

The monitoring team held 14 listening sessions with 158 young people in the city, between 8 and 28 years old. “Some youth reported positive interaction with police. That’s good,” he said, before adding, “More youth reported negative with police such as officers being rude, calling them names and treating them like criminals.”

For Margaret Barnes-Williams of Newark, reforming the city police department is a matter of personal importance. She was among the residents whose complaints about the department were included in the 2010 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that prompted the DOJ investigation and the subsequent consent decree that called for the independent monitor.

Barnes-Williams said she was arrested and strip searched in front of males at what was then the Precinct 5 station house.

“I was disappointed, upset, because I was humiliated,” she said of the 2010 incident. “Still when I talk about it I cry because it is something I will never forget.”

Barnes-Williams, now a South Ward community district leader, said she sees reason to hope.

“Over the years, they have changed,” she said of city police. “They did a 360 to me, as what I see. I hope they continue to be visual, communicate with the public, have open meetings, just be a police department that we’re able to come to and not fear.”

In the wake of her arrest, Williams and others became advocates for improved police accountability and training — reforms that mirror those Harvey and his team have been implementing.

Among the department’s new policies are protocols for stops and arrest involving the LGBTQ community and respecting citizens’ right to record officer interactions in public.

“Another thing they can’t do is threaten to arrest you,” he said.

“Everybody’s dignity has to be respected,” he said.

Harvey said under staffing in the department’s precincts are part of the problem.

“If you don’t have enough officers, then the officers you do have are simply responding to calls,” he said. “That’s what they’re doing. They don’t have time to engage in … regular conversations with the community to find out what are you concerns? What are your thoughts? What should we be doing better?”

Harvey also said a consultant found Newark Police must spend more than $30 million to replace its error-prone, manual record keeping system — a system that’s decades old.

“Think about it: If somebody said, ‘I’ve got this great desktop computer from 2009 and I want you to have it.’ You would say, ‘No thank you,’ he said.

Harvey said his next report would include a review of a police-involved pursuit and shooting from January that left one man dead and a city police officer under indictment for aggravated manslaughter. City and county officials had initially declined to release to Harvey the body camera videos and officer statements.

Harvey said he saw signs of progress in the incident.

“Look, I said to the police director, quite candidly, I said look here’s the good news about that shooting,” he said. “You had, what, a dozen officers out there? Fifteen. Maybe 12. Only one shot. Only one shot. You didn’t have five officers shooting. Which tells me that the policy kicked in for somebody. The training kicked in for somebody. I said, that’s the good news.”

Under the consent decree, Harvey’s term lasts five years.