NEWARK – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced the creation of a civilian complaint review board, a measure meant to improve relations between the city’s police department and the residents of the state’s largest city in the aftermath of a federal investigation of Newark’s police force.
“There are few greater issues that affect our nation today than the growing gap between our police agencies and the public they are sworn to protect and serve. This is increasingly becoming a tragedy as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island have shown us,” said Baraka at a Tuesday press conference at the Newark Police and Fire Communications Center, flanked by ranking police officers. “Happily, I can say that we in Newark have been spared for the most part, and our officers have not engaged in acts like that.”
Newark has not seen the occurrence of fatal incidents involving police and civilians that drew mass protests and national interest last year. However, Tuesday’s notice by Newark city officials of the creation of a civilian complaint review board follows the announcement last July of the results of a three-year federal investigation that revealed significant civil rights violations by the Newark Police Department, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that the force would be placed under federal oversight.
The joint investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began in 2011, less than a year after a highly critical report from the ACLU questioned whether the Newark Police Department could effectively police itself.
The joint report revealed widespread violations of the Fourth Amendment, noting that up to 75 percent of stop-and-frisk pedestrian stops in Newark were unconstitutional. It also showed a pattern and practice of excessive use of force by police officers, and that African-American residents, who comprise 54 percent of Newark’s population, constitute nearly 80 percent of police stop-and frisks.
Baraka detailed the composition of the proposed nine-member board, which will include an inspector general appointed by the mayor, three members selected by the city council,and the remaining five members picked from a group of five community organizations. Board members will serve for three years after its initial establishment. The inspector general will be the only board member who will be a former member of the Newark Police Department.
The board will have the power to interview individuals, conduct investigations, query witnesses, review records and issue subpoenas to conduct investigations.
After the board submits its findings with any recommendation for action, what was termed a “disciplinary matrix” of Newark’s police director, police chief, police organizations and union representatives will make determinations with input from community organizations.
The Newark police director will keep the authority to make final disciplinary decisions.
“I believe that the civilian complaint review board will be effective in helping us take this agency and embark upon a new realm of constitutional policing,” said Director Eugene Venable. “It takes courage and commitment to accept the fact that we have some law enforcement practices that we have to improve, to accept guidance from the federal monitor and to allow a civilian component to into our disciplinary process and we restore the public’s trust.”
“Is it a challenge? Sure. But it’s nothing that this agency can’t handle,” added Newark Police Chief Anthony Campos. “There is a need to adapt. Dinosaurs couldn’t, and didn’t, and they went extinct. It’s an opportunity for us to improve on operations, but just or more importantly, it’s an opportunity for transparency.”
Baraka noted that he would sign an executive order to create the board on 30 days from Wednesday, which allows for public comment and input concerning the civilian complaint review board. Baraka added that the board will “hopefully be up and running” by the end of 2015.
Newark has at times had a history of tension between the city’s police department and its population, including both and before and after the 1967 civil disturbances. Yet members of community organizations expressed hope that the civilian complaint review board, the first of its kind in city history, will play a role in positively shaping Newark’s future.
“We commend Mayor Baraka for taking this important first step today to create a civilian complaint review board for Newark, and we look forward to working with him over the next 30 days to build on his proposal,” said Udi Ofer, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey. “One area of concern is making sure that any discipline that is recommended by the board actually sticks. We want to make sure that Newark learns from the failures of civilian complaint review boards across the country and doesn’t repeat those same failures.”
“We have been seeking a police review for half a century,” said Lawrence Hamm, the New Jersey state chairman and founder of the People’s Organization for Progress, a grassroots, community organization based in Newark. “This executive order is moving in the right direction, and subpoena power is important. But it’s also important that the review board be involved in the discipline process. We need a police review board with teeth. Policing is a tough job. We have a problem with police who consider themselves judge, jury and executioner. Those are the police that have to be weeded out, and that give the police who are trying to do a good job a bad reputation.”