Justice Department brings 'jolt' of reform to Newark PD

Newark's police reforms are the latest chapter in a nationwide trend of federally mandated changes in response to civil rights complaints.

Julio Cortez/AP
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (front) stands with Vanita Gupta (l.) principal deputy assistant attorney general for the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Paul Fishman (second from left), US attorney for the District of New Jersey, and Anthony Ambrose (r.), Newark public safety director, while speaking during a news conference on Wednesday in Newark, NJ.

The city of Newark, N.J., agreed to federally mandated police reform on Wednesday, following a US Justice Department finding that the city police department exhibited a "pattern or practice of constitutional violations."

“This decree will serve as a roadmap for reform in the city of Newark, and as a model for best police practices across the country,” US Attorney Paul Fishman told the Associated Press.

The agreement comes nearly five years after the Department of Justice opened its probe into the Newark Police Department "after receiving serious allegations of civil rights violations" by police officers. 

 concluded in 2014 that the NPD's stop and arrest practices, its use of force, its response to individuals exercising their First Amendment rights, and officers committing theft collectively amounted to a violation of constitutional rights.

Since the release of that report, the issue of overly aggressive policing, particularly in minority communities, has exploded onto the national stage. Accusations of police restricting the public from recording officers' actions, coupled with a spate recent high-profile shootings of black men by law enforcement officers, has led to increased scrutiny of police around the country.

Many police departments are undergoing similar reforms, spurred by calls from the Justice Department to improve officer training and regain community trust in their public servants.

These intervention and oversight measures constitute a much-needed "jolt from the outside," Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska criminal justice professor, told the Monitor last May. 

"They are an effective and almost necessary remedy for troubled police departments," said Professor Walker, "and I define troubled police departments as those that are incapable of reforming themselves."

While Newark is only now establishing the parameters of its Department of Justice agreement, other municipalities have moved more quickly to reform their police departments in the wake of negative exposure.

In Ferguson, Mo., the site of the shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer that sparked the national Black Lives Matter protest movement, the City Council unanimously voted just weeks ago to accept a “sweeping overhaul of its police and court system” by the Justice Department. And last spring, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department voted to accept a Justice Department settlement over civil rights abuses there.

The Newark guidance announced this week includes “revised policies and training protocols,” “a range of accountability and oversight measures,” and “community engagement,” according to the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said that he was “not ecstatic” about the $7.5 million in costs associated with hiring former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey to monitor the NPD and its adoption of the settlement over the next five years, but he added that the costs would be offset by fewer legal complaints lodged against the NPD.

Newark’s Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose welcomed the agreement, saying he didn’t see Harvey’s arrival as “someone looking down our backs or over our shoulders,” and that he was pleased with the potential for change within the NPD.

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