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Newark Redeploys Police Force, Targets Violent Crime Hotspots

Mayor Baraka hopes a combination of better policing and outreach to young offenders can cut robbery and murder rates

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Bolstered by a new report that tracks crime in the city, Newark is redeploying police to neighborhoods afflicted by violence while adding social workers and community outreach to "intervene" with youthful offenders in danger of becoming career criminals. It’s an approach that Newark Mayor Ras Baraka hopes will stem the violence of the past few years and one that other cities in the state might want to emulate.

The Safer Newark Council buttresses the strategy with an analysis of eight years of crime data. The findings show much of the city is safe, but some areas are chronically dangerous.

To respond effectively to the problems, the research zeroes in on where, why, and how robberies and murders are occurring in the city, and who is likely to be involved.

Baraka said the findings provide direction for the city's crime-fighting efforts, including assigning police more effectively. But they also make a case for doing more for young people who may fall into a life of crime, he said.

If successful, the approach could point the way for similar cities, he said. But with Newark piecing together funding for the initiative, Baraka said he is not ready to promote it to mayors of other hard-pressed cities before establishing a track record.

"This is a first in the state and among comparable cities around the nation," Baraka said.

The report provides the mayor with a counterbalance to the image of Newark as highly dangerous. Media coverage of a few high-profile crimes, such as the slaying last month of a student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in his fraternity house, have resulted in a poor reputation for the city.

"You would think that you can't walk anywhere in Newark without being hit in the head," Baraka said.

"Despite what people think, Newark is in no way an 'urban war zone,'" said Todd Clear, a professor at the Rutgers-Newark School of Criminal Justice and lead researcher.

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Newark has consistently had a high homicide rate, Clear said, but it "is in the middle of the pack" of similar-size cities for overall crime, including violent offenses such as aggravated assault, sexual assault, and burglary. Its crime rates are lower than Camden, Paterson, or Trenton, though higher than Jersey City, he said.

When examined more closely, portions of Newark are "virtually crime-free," Clear said. In any given three-year period studied, "80 percent of street segments in Newark did not experience a crime," he said.

What Newark does have are persistent hot spots of shootings that most often stem from gangs, drugs, personal disputes, and robberies gone bad, Clear said. Murders are concentrated in particular sites in the South and West wards, the data show.

"If I lived there, I would be outraged" if police resources were directed elsewhere, Baraka said. The mayor added he wants to avoid assigning police and social services "based on who screams the loudest at city council meetings."

"It comes down right to one word: guns," said Anthony Ambrose, the city's public safety director. "We have the strictest gun laws in New Jersey, but we're not far from Pennsylvania, and we have the Northeast corridor cutting through the city."

The combination of guns and drugs and gangs fuels the city's murders, but social factors deserve attention, Ambrose said. He attributed a spike in homicides to eight domestic violence cases, saying that highlights the need for more resources for that problem.

While not necessarily surprising, Ambrose said the report’s data-driven findings make it easier for police to target problems. The city's robbers are typically young males aged 16 to 24, while the typical murderer is in his mid to late 20s. Moreover, while murder victims can be anyone, the most common target is someone who was released from prison in the previous eight months.

Juveniles account for 4 percent or less of annual arrests in the city, according to the report. But the youths who are arrested are most often charged with robbery. Thus, Ambrose said, robbery is an "entry-level" crime that requires intervention.

Despite having data and a plan, officials acknowledged that good outcomes will depend on the city's ability and willingness to commit personnel and money for the long-term.

After wrangling the city budget under control, the Baraka Administration is in the process of steadily adding police officers, to a projected 250 more, plus one new social worker for each 25 officers hired. The mayor acknowledged, though, that staffing levels are barely keeping up with retirements and other departures since sweeping layoffs in 2010.

"These new officers are replacing those we've lost through attrition, but they're not 'added' officers," Baraka said.

Newark already has gotten a federal grant for one aspect of the project, restoring the Newark Community Street Team, the mayor said. An outreach program to mentor youths, help them get to and from school safely, and de-escalate conflicts, the team fell victim to past budget cuts before being revived last year.

"Hopefully, these things will get results," Baraka said. "We'll be able to go to foundations, members of the philanthropic community, the federal government, they'll see success and put money in."

That also will require community support for what is likely to be a long process, Clear said. "The biggest danger" is residents getting the impression that the new approach should bring instant results and giving up if progress is slow, he said.

The Safer Newark Council, formed last year by civic, academic and business groups after discussions with city officials, has the ability to raise its own funds, Baraka said. But that is likely to complement city efforts, not fund more police, he said.

The data-driven policy approach may have applications in other cities in New Jersey and elsewhere, Clear said. But he added that implementation comes down to available resources, which are limited in many places.

"Newark would not be able to do this without drawing on the resources of its anchor institutions," businesses, foundations and universities, he said. That involvement also provides a neutral footing for policy recommendations, not tied to politics, he said.

"Because the Safer Newark Council is an independent group, it can say things that it may be uncomfortable for the city to hear," Clear said.

The officials said the council will issue annual reports and continue to update its findings on its website.

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