Perspectives on Police Reform

In the wake of mass protests of police violence, Newark received national attention for its ongoing efforts to reform its police department. Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose is optimistic the city will emerge as a model for others to follow. We spoke to Peter Chen, city resident and attorney interested in police reform, and Rashawn Davis, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to establish Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and served on it as a commissioner from 2018-2020, for their views of how much progress has been made.

What’s your assessment of the progress Newark’s police department has made toward the Department of Justice’s consent decree reforms?

Davis: I think some important progress has been made for sure. The consent decree itself and I think the ways it has been embraced by the department and city is a significant step in itself, because that simply doesn’t happen everywhere. Police departments are large organizations. Some are over 100 years old. That makes change hard. The same is true for Newark. But, I would say there is a feeling that the department is moving in the right direction; our city is statistically safer than it has been in two generations and complaints seem to be down. The work is far from finished, but every step counts.

Chen: I think this is asking the wrong question, in that it confuses the “consent decree” goals with substantive justice and safety for Newark residents. The NPD is making substantial progress towards the specific goals set by the consent decree and I commend them for that — reforming policies, collecting and publicizing data, and improving officer training. But there’s a question as to whether the consent decree is setting appropriate goals in itself. Does meeting the consent decree goals result in changed perceptions by officers and community members? Ending some of the most unconstitutional and irresponsible policies and practices of the department was an important start, but it’s just a start. Simply because policing meets the very low bar set by the federal constitution does not make it just.

Put differently, if the NPD complied with every inch of the consent decree, would those changes prevent an unlawful killing of an unarmed person? Would those changes result in use of force reductions? Would those changes lead fewer Black residents to be disproportionately subject to police contact, stops, searches, and arrests? If the answer to those questions is “no,” and I suspect it would be, then the consent decree alone is not sufficient to guarantee a just police department that properly protects and serves our city and its residents.

What role(s) has city government played in helping facilitate reform?

Davis: I would say the soul of any reform movement almost always starts at the grassroots level. The same is true in Newark, the police reform movement in this city is the result of many generations of nameless people marching and organizing for better policing. At the same time, Mayor Baraka has roots in activism and it shows. From the time he was elected as mayor in 2014 he has been a supporter of a strong Review Board and he was the one who signed an Executive Order creating the board and a big part of it getting across the finish line with the City Council; Allyship in government is a real part of this story.

Chen: The city has played a major role in reform. Many other municipalities have stood in the way or simply let the police handle the consent decree reforms without substantial oversight. Newark has taken a much more proactive role. The city has engaged in many community events, and I’ve seen the Mayor speak multiple times about the need for robust police reform. The city’s dogged defense of the CCRB ordinance also demonstrated its commitment to reform.

What’s your view of the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruling that civilian oversight boards cannot have subpoena power over local police departments?

Davis: From the very beginning, people understood that Newark would be trailblazing when it came to the subpoena power piece of the Review Board. Very few Review Boards in the country have anything like it. But, I would say first that there are so many other pieces of this Board that make it unique and special including community group representation on the board that is written into the law. Secondly, I would say I think elected officials and the activist community are aligned in figuring out what options there are to make sure Newark is left with a Review Board that works and is a model for the other towns and cities.

Chen: I haven’t reviewed all the case law closely, but I think Chief Justice Rabner’s dissent clearly lays out the errors in the majority opinion’s reasoning. Cities have broad powers to investigate their police departments. The Supreme Court’s opinion will hamper the effectiveness of the CCRB and hurt Newark’s ability to hold its officers accountable. However, I’ll note that CCRBs are not magic. Subpoena power alone is insufficient if there are not strong enforcement mechanisms after investigations occur. The CCRB in New York City has produced extensive complaint investigations, and many of its most investigated officers nonetheless remain officers to this day.

Photos courtesy of Peter Chen (left) and Rashawn Davis (right)

Does a change in leadership in the White House have any potential implications for what’s happening in Newark?

Davis: Well, I think it has implications for the movement nationally. In Newark, for example, the consent decree and the federal investigation that came before it created a lot of momentum for the creation of the board because it officially affirmed what people had known for many many years – that parts of the department were broken. The consent decree process has created much needed momentum in many other cities as well, like Baltimore. I think having a White House that understands the important role the Department of Justice can play in moving policing forward in cities across the country is vital.

Chen: In my opinion, no. The consent decree was always enforced by the courts, and progress continued even during the Trump administration. My hope is that the change in administration means more support and technical assistance to ensure the sustainability of reform efforts. But the long shadow of the Trump administration stretches beyond the office of the President. Let’s not forget that the NJ Fraternal Order of Police and NJ Policemen’s Benevolent Association both endorsed Donald Trump for President. We have no reason to think that law enforcement officers and their professional organizations will stop supporting the racist policies and violent policing tactics that Trump has repeatedly endorsed. Resistance to reform from within the law enforcement rank and file has likely been amplified by Donald Trump’s opposition to consent decrees.

What can everyday Newarkers do to be a part of this process?

Davis: Newark is a big city with more than a quarter of a million people living here, but it often feels a lot smaller because it’s often the same people we see and hear from. I would encourage people from across the city to take ownership in this community and realize just how important your voice is. Newark has a rich history of activism and civics, the results are still felt today. There are so many organizations involved in this work that hold open meetings like the NAACP, Ironbound Community Corporation, People’s Organization for Progress and many more. Simply show up (virtually for now) with an open mind, and these organizations will embrace you the same way they embraced me many years ago fresh out of college. I would also say to attend a City Council hearing, that is always a crash course on the big topics of discussion in the city including police reform and a chance to voice your own thoughts.

Chen: “Everyday Newarker” describes a lot of different people. As Mayor Baraka has often said, when people talk about “the community,” which community are we talking about? I’m an “everyday Newarker” but I don’t fit the demographic categories of someone likely to be stopped by the police. In my six years in Newark, I have never once been stopped by a police officer for any reason. On the contrary, many of the people most affected by police misconduct are also those least likely to participate in civic life. The people who are most at risk of police contact are young people, low-income residents, people experiencing substance abuse, people experiencing homelessness, people who don’t speak English or are recent immigrants — exactly the same people who are often not involved in government to begin with. They are also those with the least spare time to pop into community meetings, or call into Newark Today or testify to the City Council.

Maybe instead of asking how “everyday Newarkers” can be involved in the process, we should be asking how the City and police department can more effectively collect the stories and experiences of Newarkers and their encounters with the police. The onus should be on governmental institutions to find out what reforms Newarkers want, rather than on the oppressed groups themselves. The city and department have made great first steps — holding sessions directly with youth to solicit input. But these are only a first step. The bridge from listening-session to policy implementation is a long one.

How do you feel about the future of police-community relations in Newark?

Davis: I’m optimistic. For 60 years, Newarkers have pushed to make this board a reality. There is a desire in the community, I think, to honor that legacy by ensuring that the board flourishes and becomes the bridge between community and police that it was originally envisioned to be. I have a lot of faith in our movement builders in this city as well as our leaders current and future to see the development of the board through. We have already overcome so many challenges to get this point and the only option is to move forward.

Chen: The range of outcomes is wide, but I admit that the long history of police reform does not make me optimistic. Newark has an unprecedented opportunity: a supportive mayor with a history of civil rights activism, a police leadership cohort with strong commitment to reform, a consent decree that can keep pressure on the department, a relatively new officer corps that has seen substantial turnover, and an engaged population that wants change. And yet when I look at the data, I see the same racial disparities in police contact over and over — Black residents stopped, frisked, searched, arrested and victims of police force at higher rates than Hispanic or White residents. And I think, when we look at the data in 20 years, 30 years, I wonder what kind of changes need to happen for that not to be the case. And when I look at the goals of the consent decree, I think those wholescale changes are not within the scope of ambition in the consent decree.

Maybe an example is helpful here. In November 2018, the NPD approved a new Use of Force Policy, a core part of the consent decree, and the result of extensive work by the consent decree team, the monitor and multiple community meetings for input. Since January 2020, there have been 342 documented cases of use of force by NPD officers. In that same time period, there were 0 cases of officers disciplined for violation of the use of force policy. There are caveats with this kind of data, of course. There’s lag time between incidents and disciplinary hearings, and hearings have been slowed by COVID-19 precautions. But the fact remains that if the use of policy does not find anyone doing anything wrong, one has to wonder whether these policy changes will result in real behavior change within the officer corps.

The Newark Police Department did not comment, but suggests following their consent decree website for data on their reform efforts.

Featured image by Henri Antikainen