REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The city’s police department must reform its stop-and-search policies, enroll in anti-bias training, and stop stealing people’s stuff.

African Americans in Newark, New Jersey, were 2.5 times as likely to get stopped and frisked by city police as white residents were when the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the police department five years ago. Wednesday, the Justice Department entered into an agreement with Newark police to ensure that the department changes its policies so the city does not return to this racially lop-sided scenario.

Police officials signed a consent decree on March 30 committing them to a long list of reforms meant to correct a system-wide pattern of violating the constitutional rights of citizens. The Justice Department’s findings from its investigation, released in 2014, showed a police force bent on frisking citizens, mostly African Americans, without reason, as well as using excessive force on suspects and stealing from them. The department must take the following corrective steps under the new consent decree:  

  • NPD will revise search and seizure policies, training, and supervision to ensure that all stops, searches, and arrests are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and in a manner that takes into account community priorities.
  • NPD will integrate bias-free policing principles into all levels of the organization, including comprehensive training of officers and supervisors.
  • NPD will reform use of force policies, including requirements for using de-escalation techniques whenever possible and appropriate, prohibiting retaliatory force, and ensuring mandatory reporting and investigation standards following use of force.
  • NPD will deploy in-car and body-worn cameras to promote accountability, instill community confidence, and improve law enforcement records.
  • NPD will implement measures to prevent theft of property by officers, including robust reporting and complete accounting of property or evidenced seized.
  • Newark will create a civilian oversight entity to give voice to and pursue concerns of its residents.
  • NPD will improve records management and early intervention systems and collect data on all uses of force and investigatory stops, searches, and arrests, and develop a protocol for the comprehensive analysis of the data.   

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who helped craft the decree, said at a press conference that the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy was a “significant problem” that needed to be addressed with the new reforms. As for how this got out of hand:

Some of this stems from a lack of clarity in [Newark police] policies and training, which has promoted a view that living or simply being in a high-crime area is, in and of itself, criminally suspicious. … We also found that this practice had a particularly acute impact on African Americans. And some of the people who have been stopped and arrested were lawfully objecting to police action or simply behaving in a way that officers perceived as disrespectful.

Justice Department investigators waded through thousands of reports on police stops and use of force, mostly complaints from between 2006 and 2011, when Garry McCarthy was chief of the Newark police department. McCarthy left Newark in 2011 to become police superintendent in Chicago, where he served until Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired him last December over police abuse problems.  

The DOJ investigation found that roughly three-fourths of pedestrian stops by Newark police were done with no stated legal basis. Thousands of these stops were reported as being about people “milling,” “loitering,” or “wandering” around, with no suspicious criminal activity recorded. African Americans were the primary targets of these stops.

The DOJ investigation also found no reasonable, constitutional justification for the use of violent force by officers in more than 20 percent of the reports that it reviewed. Newark cops will now have to undergo “de-escalation trainings” to help them learn methods of calming potentially violent interactions other than firing their weapons. Such de-escalation practices have been the object of much criticism and scorn from police union heads and police chiefs recently.

Newark’s narcotics and gang units also routinely stole money and other belongings from suspects. According to the investigation report, when the victims of these thefts complained, the police department:

… conducted inadequate investigations into theft complaints, failed to take corrective action against offending officers, and declined to implement methods recommended by its own investigators that could substantially reduce and deter future theft by officers.

Looking at this pattern of abuse of power, it’s easy to understand the angst in Newark rapper Redman’s songs about police harassment. As he rhymed in his 1996 song “What U Lookin’ 4”:

Walkin to my car witcha nine out the holster
‘Put your hands on the steering wheel like ya sposed ta’
I cooperate don't give the redneck no hassle
Because too many mistakes be happening to black folk

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Chief Vanita Gupta said at the Newark press conference that the new consent decree “emphasizes community engagement as a critical ingredient for reform.”

“It requires the city to create a civilian oversight entity to improve transparency in the police department and public confidence from the community,” said Gupta. “It establishes a problem-oriented policing model to strengthen collaborative community partnerships. And it requires an annual survey to assess the community’s experience with the police and its perceptions of public safety.”

Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey will monitor the police department for the federal government to ensure that Newark police comply with the consent decree’s terms. Harvey, in fact, helped create the federal consent decree for New Jersey state police when they were exposed for racial profiling. Newark police can only come out of oversight if Harvey and the federal court presiding over the decree feel satisfied that the department has met its end of the bargain for two consecutive years.

“When officers flout the law or abuse their authority, this discourages people from working with police,” said Gupta at the press conference. “And we know that mistrust between police and residents breaks down collaboration, impedes the sharing of information, and leads to less effective policing. This makes everyone–residents and officers alike–less safe.”

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