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'Stop and frisk' in Newark: Another milestone in police reform? (+video)

Newark police have agreed on changes following a federal investigation that found the department's 'stop-and-frisk' practices were targeting blacks unfairly.

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    Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaks during a news conference Wednesday, in Newark, N.J. The federal government and Newark announced a settlement Wednesday to reform the city's police department after allegations officers make unconstitutional stops and arrests, particularly of minorities.
    Julio Cortez/AP
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A wave of attention to reforming police departments hit Newark, N.J., Wednesday when the department finalized a civil rights deal with the US Department of Justice.

Police forces in Newark, along with Ferguson, Mo.; Baltimore; Chicago; and Minneapolis, have grabbed national attention as unrest with minority communities has sparked violence and accusations of police bias. The slate of changes being demanded by the public and the federal government offer an opportunity for reform.

"Far, far too many police reports have failed to describe a constitutionally adequate reason for stops of people on the street," Paul Fishman, New Jersey's federal prosecutor said, according to Reuters. "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."

Under a deal the Newark police and the US Justice Department reached Wednesday, the department will reevaluate its "stop-and-frisk" policies under federal monitoring, Joseph Ax reported for Reuters. The city council also created a watchdog complaint board to provide civilian oversight of the police department earlier in March. 

A federal probe in 2014 found police were checking suspects on the street, using "excessive force," and making arrests based on a person's presence in high-crime areas, and federal and city officials have been working on what is formally called a "consent decree" since that time, Vernal Coleman reported for NJ.com. As in other cities, the Justice Department worried that the lion's share was falling on the city's black population, which makes up 54 percent of the city of 277,000. 

Ferguson reached its own consent decree agreement in February. That case almost went to court because the Missouri city initially feared the agreement would lead it to bankruptcy. But after further negotiations, Ferguson agreed to accept changes, including cameras for cars and officers, a recruitment plan to increase diversity, and revamped polices on use of force.

In both cases, the department or city must budget for the changes the Justice Department has asked for, as well as the federal monitor on progress, so police leadership have an incentive to act quickly and effectively.

"We're going to try and put together the best team we can to move the city forward," Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told NJ.com. "And we're going to make the reforms happen quickly as possible so they don't stay long."

Consent decrees usually take years rather than months to fully resolve, but they can create opportunities for innovative reform because they force the city to invest interest and resources in its police department, says Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the nonpartisan research organization, the Police Foundation.

"As a result of these consent decrees, it is absolutely possible that best practices are produced," Mr. Bueermann says in a phone interview. "A lot of it depends on the willingness of leadership to say that this can be an asset to us ... as opposed to trying to fight it tooth and nail."

The Newark deal closely resembles a similar settlement the Justice Department made in nearby New York City two years ago.

Chicago, where violent protests followed police shooting a black man carrying a knife, is making changes as well. The city announced a six-month, independent audit of its own police watchdog organization, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), by the law firm McGuireWoods, The Associated Press reported.

The Chicago Police Department has also recruited, and is now vetting, its most diverse candidate pool ever. 

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