Ras Baraka: Struggling to Rebuild the Police Force in Newark’s Image

Yes, the past several years have brought victories and reforms, but the mayor readily concedes a bigger fight must address long-term intractable problems that poverty brings
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Jan. 20, 2015: Mayor Ras Baraka, at the podium, unveils his plan for a civilian complaint review board of police misconduct.

Ras Baraka took office as Newark’s mayor just in time to receive a report from the Justice Department detailing ingrained racism and double standards in the city’s police force. In the six intervening years he has restructured the force more than once to eliminate these problems — with limited success. This is the second article in a two-part series about the mayor and the city he grew up in. Follow this link to read the first story.

Just three weeks after taking office in 2014, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka was greeted with a scathing 49-page report from the U.S. Justice Department, detailing a three-year investigation that uncovered a pervasive pattern of abuse and misconduct in Newark’s police department.

None of it was news to the mayor.

In sobering detail, the report revealed the widespread practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, along with the persistent use of excessive force, even theft. The central theme of  the report was a “stark and unremitting” disparity in police treatment of Black residents.

The abuses detailed in the report had occurred under the administration of Baraka’s predecessor, Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator, who was aware of the investigation and had fervently resisted federal intervention. (Booker later changed his stance.) Baraka instead embraced it, and agreed to appoint a federal monitor who would oversee a team to remedy  the department’s glaring deficiencies. That concession was codified two years later in a consent decree, a detailed legal agreement that mandates a laundry list of reform measures.

Newark is now heading into its fifth year of federal oversight, and Baraka asserts that the current police force is “night and day” different — no resemblance to the one he grew up with and inherited when he took office. And now, since the unprecedented public protest over the killing of George Floyd, police reform is suddenly front and center in the nation’s consciousness.

Newark, Baraka said in an interview with NJ Spotlight, is actually ahead of the rest of the country. “And that’s a sad statement,” Baraka was quick to add, “We still have a long way to go.”

Peter Harvey, the former state attorney general who was appointed as the federal monitor, shares Baraka’s assessment of the city’s progress. “Newark is a success story of how a police department should go about complying with a consent decree,” Harvey said.

The department is about two-thirds to three-quarters on its way to completion. The consent decree was intended to last five years but was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The most pressing task yet to be completed is an overhaul of the department’s substandard technology to produce an effective communications system, Harvey adds.

Reform shows results

It is no coincidence, Baraka says, that homicides and violent crime have been decreasing over the past five years. Lawsuits and citizen complaints are also down. Equally telling, he notes, internal affairs investigations are on the rise, suggesting police leaders are more closely scrutinizing their charges.

“We’ve been talking about these things for years,” Baraka says, referring to some of the reforms under way: training, community engagement and policy changes, most notably regarding use of force and de-escalation techniques —all parts of a shift to an overarching reduction-of-violence strategy.

“Because of the consent decree, we’ve already changed use-of-force policies and stop policies,” Baraka says.  “All those things have been changed, and that tends to change the culture of what police think they can do.”

In June, the city redirected $12 million annually from its police budget to create the Office of Violence Prevention, which will be housed in the city’s First Precinct — where the 1967 riots began. Next year, the precinct will also be transformed into a museum, chronicling local activism in Newark and “positive police changes.” It will also house a trauma center for crime victims. “This building will now become a place of healing,”  Baraka said at the time.

The city has also put social workers on the police payroll, instituted weekly community round-tables and started a program to train and develop a “citizen clergy” to assist in volatile situations.

“People are walking around with unresolved issues. It’s explosive,” Baraka says.  “We need to intervene early … provide a raft so people don’t drown.”

Creating a civilian review board

Baraka, a longtime community organizer,  took office in 2014 with his own ideas on how to deal with a  police department that he had long called “an occupational force.” In 2015, he signed an executive order creating a civilian complaint review board endowed with subpoena power and the right to conduct its own investigations into police misconduct.

That act fulfilled an aspiration he had inherited from his father, Amiri Baraka, who had been championing a review board since the infamous 1967 riots. But earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that the board cannot be given such powers. Baraka condemned the decision and  vowed to both take the case to federal courts and push for enabling legislation.

Also in 2015, he launched the Newark Community Street Team, which is run by his longtime activist friend, Aqueela Sherrills, a former Los Angeles gang member who became famous in 1992 when he negotiated a ceasefire there between the Crips and Bloods. Baraka and Sherrills met 25 years ago, stayed in touch and after Baraka became mayor, he asked him to come help him with his anti-violence initiative.

Funded by public and private sources, the team has 43 staffers. The group hires, trains and deploys a network of “high-risks interventionalists” in the city’s South Ward.  They talk to people, calm the waters before things get out of hand. They also work out of University Hospital, in order to get crime victims early in the process, for the purpose of keeping matters from escalating. Sherrills is “a godsend,” the mayor says, and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal calls it “a national model for community-based violence reduction.”  Baraka hopes to take it citywide

Building a diverse police force

 Progress is  measured in data.

Newark’s current population is about 50% Black, just as it was during the riots of 1967, when the mayor’s famous father, Amiri Baraka, was severely beaten and jailed. That police department was 95% white. Baraka and Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose have emphasized the recruitment of minority and female officers.  Now, the force is 21% white, 34% black and 44% Latino.

It is “a police department that’s starting to look more like the community. People now see their cousin, their brother, their uncle in uniform,” Baraka says.  The police force today “is nothing like what we had to deal with … There was no accountability. That’s the real point … there is a level of accountability now.”

Still, current police department statistics show that Black residents remain far more likely to be stopped, arrested and subjected to force than Hispanic and white citizens.

Harvey declined comment on this matter, saying his team is currently analyzing this data. Ambrose argues those statistics do not prove racial bias.

“Nearly 100% of our shooting victims and suspects are African American,” he said.  “The majority of our violent crime occurs in geographic areas that encompass about 20%  of the city, and these areas are plagued by poverty, drugs and other social factors that contribute to crime.”

Put simply, Ambrose asserts that entrenched poverty begets violence, predominately in the form of gang and drug activity. And such poverty is prevalent in some of Newark’s Black neighborhoods, generating more calls to which police respond.

The fact that these statistics are now available, it should be noted, is a result of actions arising from the consent decree.

“While certain disparities may remain, we are driving crime down and saving lives, all the while using less enforcement — which means fewer and fewer Black and brown people are subject to enforcement actions,” Ambrose adds.

As he is known to do, Baraka offers another take: “Some cops get it; some don’t.”

Police problems, Baraka captured on film

 If Baraka had any delusions about the difficulty police reform faces, an old friend showed up in 2015 to remind him.

Jelani Cobb, an acclaimed author and Columbia Journalism professor, was a classmate and friend of Baraka’s in the late ‘80s at Howard University. In fact, he took part in a major protest that Baraka had organized and led — the takeover of the school’s administration building. Police brutality had long been a concern for the two activists, and Cobb wanted to see and film how police reform was going in Newark. He asked his old friend for insider access and Baraka gave it to him, allowing him to film strategy meetings, street patrols and more.

It was decision Baraka later regretted.

That fall, Cobb accompanied officers from the city’s Gang Enforcement Unit for a ride-along. When the documentary film — Policing the Police — aired on PBS Frontline the following June, it showed the undercover officers executing a series of highly questionable stops and searches of Black citizens the detectives  had deemed suspicious. And it showed what, to least a layman’s eye, appeared to be use of excessive force. These are the activities addressed in the consent decree. One of the officers was Wilberto Ruiz, an Air Force vet who was raised in Newark. Cobb interviewed him along the way.

“How does the decision get made to say, ‘OK, we need to stop that person,’ or ‘We need to do a field inquiry with that person’”?

You know more or less — when you pass them and they give you that look, you know,” Ruiz answered.

Later, Cobb showed Baraka some of the gang-unit footage and filmed the mayor’s reaction.

Baraka: That’s not how you police. I mean, that right there is racism.

Cobb: But these are Black and brown cops.

Baraka: Yeah, so what?

Cobb: It’s a diverse police force.

Baraka: It’s not the who-did-it that make it racism. But to me, is the fact that overwhelmingly it happens to one specific group of people is what makes it racism.

Apparently, Ruiz was one of those cops who didn’t get it.

A few weeks later, Ruiz was suspended without pay, after an incident in which the gang unit stopped Jamod Watkins, a 14-year-old African American boy, who had been sent out shopping by his mother. During the encounter, “Ruiz took Watkins to the ground with so much force that he broke the boy’s clavicle,” Cobb would write later for The New Yorker.“Watkins lives in a high-crime area in the West Ward; his stop, which produced no drugs or guns, highlighted the problem with policing in Newark and other places like it. In place of reasonable suspicion, the police have adopted a standard in which all suspicion is reasonable.”

Ruiz was suspended without pay, then disciplined for not filing a report of the incident and returned to duty. The following year, he was fired on Feb. 10, 2017, and the case was referred to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. Two weeks later, he pleaded guilty to unsworn falsification to authorities. Charges related to Jamod Watkins were dismissed as part of the plea deal. Watkin’s attorney said a civil suit filed against the city has been settled.

The year 2015 was not going well. Homicides and shootings were rising compared with the prior year. In December, while the documentary was still being filmed, Baraka announced a complete overhaul of his public safety administration. He demoted his Black police director and created the position of public safety director to oversee the police and fire departments. He hired Ambrose, a white, popular, old-guard cop and previous police director. He also appointed a lawyer to head the police internal affairs office.

When the documentary aired in June of 2016, Baraka was livid. “The Frontline producers said that they wanted to show Newark police ‘in the early stages of charting new territory … with a host of new reforms’ and to show that ‘change is already afoot in Newark,’” Baraka said at the time. “They failed miserably in this mission.”

Last week, Cobb told NJ Spotlight he is working on a sequel documentary about Newark policing, also being produced by Frontline. It is scheduled to air in September and will reportedly focus on the city’s reform measures.

Steep uphill climb

When he talks about the city’s progress in reform, Baraka tends to add a qualification: “We still have massive issues we have to address.”  He rattles off a list of disparities Newark citizens struggle with: poverty unemployment, housing, health care, education. “We have to deal with the conditions that created this problem and create a police force that’s part of the community,” he said.

One small segment in Cobb’s PBS documentary summarized the enormity of the challenge police reform brings.

“Is there a point where you look around and go, ‘This is going to be even harder than I thought it would be?’” Cobb asked Baraka.

“Oh, yeah. It ain’t get this way in five years or 10 years, and it’s not going to take five or 10 years to get out of it,” Baraka replied. “I mean, you got generational poverty, generational unemployment. These buildings been vacant for 30, 40 years  … At the end of the day, there’s no tax base like the way you need it. And you’re trying to run the state’s largest city in those kinds of conditions. This is what we’re dealing with, man.”