Sean Brown knew things were improving in Camden in November, when a friend was kicked and beaten by a police officer, then charged with resisting arrest.
At another time, that might have been the end of the story. But another office told the victim, Quinzelle Bethea, that the incident embarrassed police, Brown said.
As director of Young Urban Leaders, which networks young adults and prominent professionals, Brown had built contacts with local officials, including the police department, reconstituted as a countywide force in 2013.
Lines of communications started humming, and officers were willing to step forward to cooperate in an investigation, which found video of the assault. The officer was identified and fired, and awaits trial on a charge of falsely arresting Bethea.
“It’s evidence that there’s a culture in place now where you’re not going to have bad actors, because they know other officers, their brothers and sisters, are watching and aren’t going to stay silent to protect them,” Brown said.
He told the story to a receptive audience, a gathering of law enforcement, politicians, and community activists in Newark, called by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Invitees came from around the state, and included U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.
The idea was to catch a bit of the national attention going to police-community relations, and perhaps redirect the discussion beyond rage over a steady stream of encounters, often unprovoked, that have left civilians and officers dead.
“As difficult a time as this is, I am very encouraged” by the willingness of police officials and community representatives to share experiences and advice, Lynch said. “This is a time of opportunity, when we have the attention of the world on this issue.”
For Lynch, the first African-American woman to hold her post, it continues a task she assumed upon taking office in April 2015. She began conducting similar events the next month, in conjunction with the release of a presidential commission’s report on “21st Century Policing.”
That group, led by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University criminology professor, said “building trust and legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle” of successful law enforcement.
The task force recommendations followed high-profile deaths of African-American civilians at the hands of police — including the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the choking of Eric Garner on Staten Island — which did not result in charges against officers but sparked demonstrations or riots.
Yet since the report’s release in May 2015, the country has seen a stream of more such incidents, often accompanied by racially charged rhetoric over whether “black lives matter” or “blue lives matter,” and the frequent inability of the legal system to deal with the fallout.
Arriving in New Jersey during a “National Community Policing Week” designated by President Barack Obama, Lynch reiterated the idea of “rebuilding the bonds of trust” between police and community as the key to success. But only part of the discussion at the Newark Public Library was open to the public. For the rest, Lynch heard from invited guests behind closed doors. Even with that limitation, at least some participants welcomed the chance to speak directly to what they viewed as receptive officialdom.
“This is a conversation that has been at least 49 years in the making, going back to the Newark rebellion,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
He quoted a former colleague, Sherrilyn Ifill, that “there is not a golden era of trust in most communities of color” toward law enforcement. Rather than returning to a mythological past, “we envision a new relationship in a new era,” Haygood said.
That depends in part on increased police accountability, according to Newark officials. A $382,000 federal grant will enable the department to complete the job of providing body cameras for all officers, Ambrose said.
Earlier this year, Baraka announced a new strategy of deploying officers based on crime reports. He credited Fishman for supporting the city’s efforts to land grants and reform procedures.
Many cities have faced those challenges in the past few years, Lynch said, “trying to restore the forces they once had before personnel cuts from the recession or other financial issues. A few days before her arrival, the Justice Department awarded Jersey City more than $1.8 million to cover salaries and benefits for 15 police officers for three years.
New hiring does give departments the chance to change their training and orientation procedures, she said. But the department has not specified changes, “I will leave that to the local leaders here,” Lynch said.
In Newark, Baraka said, the city has embraced extra training, more foot patrols, and a civilian review board as part of improving performance and relations, Baraka said.
“Newark has accomplished a lot, not enough, but more in the past two years than we did in the previous 15 or 20,” he said.
Cities can do more to make residents see police as part of the community, Haygood said. Several Newark officers live on his block, which gives residents, especially young people, a chance to get to know them as neighbors, he said.
“In terms of recruiting, we should encourage young people, even at the elementary school age, to think about careers in law enforcement,” Haygood said.
Something of a new era forced itself on Newark in March, when the city agreed to a consent decree with Lynch’s Justice Department to implement reforms such as an end to unconstitutional stop-and-frisk searches, the addition of the body cameras and police vehicle cameras, and standardized disciplinary procedures and penalties.
Camden’s version of a new era has been in the making at least since 2005, when the then-mayor asked the state to take a police management role following a dispute with the department. Then, the hard-pressed city disbanded the department and revived it as part of a county force.
Even before that process was complete in 2013, the city had agreed to pay a total of $3.5 million to 88 people falsely arrested. They had served a combined 109 years in prison on convictions overturned after the exposure of police corruption that included planting evidence, fabricating reports, and perjury.
“It’s not like everything is suddenly good” since the change to a county force, Brown said. “We still have a lot of crime, a lot of drug addicts from the suburbs, a lot of gang violence.”
But the discussion with Lynch and others from law enforcement, even if mainly behind closed doors, was eye-opening, according to Brown. Even as someone actively involved in building bridges in his own town, Brown said he was surprised to learn of the same productive conversations happening with police representatives across New Jersey.
“I wasn’t aware that so many places around the state are definitely trying to improve relations between their police and communities,” he said.