Newark Federal Monitor Discusses Perceptions of Police Department

May 2, 2017 | Law & Public Safety, Politics
Because the Newark Police Department is under a consent decree, it conducted a community survey.

When Newark’s public safety director announced crime had dropped in 2016 by the most in 50 years, Anthony Ambrose called it not a victory but progress. The federal monitor imposed by the U.S. Justice Department’s also showed progress in his first report. Peter Harvey sat down with NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill.

Hill: We’re looking at the first quarterly report that was issued last week. You described some of the areas of reform as slow.

Harvey: Yes.

Hill: Police training, new training?

Harvey: Yes. Well, new training, take for example community policing. This consent decree for the Newark Police Department is the first time the Department of Justice has built in a community engagement component. The DOJ does not have samples of training modules for community engagement. So policies have to be written brand new and training has to be written brand new. For example, we have just finished a bias-free policing policy. For the first time, Newark will have a bias-free policing policy. My guess is that a lot of major city police departments do not have a specific policy that addresses bias-free policing — in other words policing in a way that the focus is conduct, not on race, ethnicity, religion, dress and the like.

Hill: So there’s a chance the model being built here in Newark could be used as a model elsewhere?

Harvey: There’s a chance. If it’s done well. And I think it will be done well. But it takes some time to write this policy because you want to be sure that it is easy to understand for police officers, that it’s comprehensive and that it really is community engagement. I distinguished that from community policing. This is not officers coming to a school showing a D.A.R.E. kit and saying, “Don’t use drugs” or going to a community meeting listening to the community, residents and parents and passing out a business card. This is real precinct by precinct, street by street engagement with the community focusing on various issues of that neighborhood because it changes depending upon the neighborhood in which the police are patrolling.

Hill: I’m really interested in talking to you about the community survey results. I’m going to read some of the stats here. Eleven percent believe officers are doing an excellent job, 32 percent say they’re doing a good job, 62 percent of residents say they have a lot of respect for Newark police officers, 9 [percent] have little respect, 4 [percent] no respect. A lot, in some respect, or at least trust Newark police. Here’s one of the paragraphs from this report: Residents are most skeptical of appropriate officer conduct when it comes to treating everyone equally as well as stops and searches. About one in five residents say the Newark police officers rarely or never act appropriately in each of these circumstances. That’s a pretty dire picture.

Harvey: Now, the consent decree requires that we take a survey, which we did, of the community’s reaction to the police. This is a baseline survey. This is year one. We’ll see if it improves over time. But this is how the community feels about policing. Hence the importance of a community engagement policy, a bias-free policing policy, more importantly training. What cities inevitably cut out of police budgets — education and training. It’s a mistake. I mean, this is a police department that has not gotten sufficient resources in education and training over the past 25 to 30 years. It’s not just Newark. It’s a lot of cities. And so we hope, with the new policies, with the new education and training, that the community is going to have a different reaction overall. We’re not far away from where we should be. There’s a lot of work to be done, to be sure.

Hill: The city rolled out body cameras for officers in the South Ward, at least in this pilot program — 80 cameras for the cars and most of them for police officers.

Harvey: Correct.

Hill: And the survey of the Newark residents shows that 94 percent say they think it’s a good idea for Newark police officers to wear body cameras and 75 percent say they would be very comfortable knowing that they are being filmed when communicating with police officers. Some of the residents say — I found this really interesting — that this would foster greater trust in police and also this could inspire greater resident compliance with police officers as well.

Harvey: Body cameras protect the officer, they protect the community. Think about the most dramatic scenes we have observed over the past two years. It’s been video. It’s either been somebody filming the police on a phone or it’s been a police body camera or a car camera. Laquan McDonald’s shooting in Chicago, that was a police video from a car. Now there’s no audio track to it, but at least you have the video. Videos offer a level of transparency to police departments that police departments should welcome and desperately need. It also shows the community what the work of the police is. Look, policing is a voluntary activity. You decide to become a police officer. Also, it’s service to the community. You’re not a warrior, you’re a guardian. And so the community should see how you do your work. And video cameras are a very useful tool in modern policing.

Hill: I’m going to read you what the report says about officers, at least one of the paragraphs. Black officers were more likely than white officers to receive higher levels of bias within the department and NPD policing practices and less likely to feel the media scrutiny negatively impacts officers’ attitudes and behaviors.

Harvey: You put your finger on something that’s really important with police departments that have been placed under a consent decree and some that have not yet. There is a sense internally of unfairness. Police officers should believe that their workplace is fair, that their workplace is balanced and that every officer stands on her or his own merit and the work cuts through everything. That isn’t necessarily true throughout many police departments. And so what we captured here in a survey of police officers is how do you feel about the work you’re doing? How do you feel about the department? And so part of what you just read is the feedback we’re getting from police officers. African-American and some Latino police officers have felt that they have not been treated fairly with respect to working conditions, promotions, with respect to disciplinary matters. And so if they don’t feel good about the workplace, they reflect that out on the street.

Hill: I was about to ask you about that. Final question, Mr. Harvey. One of the things that came out from Washington from this attorney general was that he feels that consent decrees are not necessarily good for some places and that they reduce officer morale and they actually lead to more crime, big crime in some cities. Your thoughts on that?

Harvey: Well, factually, it’s inaccurate. Secondly, if you talk to the police chiefs who’ve been placed under consent decree, they will tell you it’s a good thing and it allowed them to improve the department in ways they couldn’t before because of political factors and economic factors. When they went to try to get money for training, they were told no. Look, if from a policy standpoint the Department of Justice says we don’t want to involve ourselves in policing the police, you can do that. But you still have to make available training, education and materials so that the forward-thinking chief says, “How do I make sure that my officers are using modern policing tactics? How do I make sure that my officers are not engaging in racial profiling and other kinds of unconstitutional behavior?” Well, they should be able to turn to the Department of Justice and say, “Can you send trainers out to me? Can you give me a sample of what a modern policy looks like on use of force, bias-free policing? Can you send me out modern training modules and manuals about what community engagement should look like because I don’t know what it looks like and I need your help.” So what you can’t do is say we’re not going to get involved in police departments and not give police departments tools and resources that they need to do the job better, particularly when they ask you for the help. So I’m not sure that this particular attorney general is well informed about modern policing or well informed about how a number of police organizations that have lived through consent decrees feel about the value that those consent decrees have brought to the police department.