Residents, Newark officials discuss police-community relations during National Night Out

Aug. 7 is National Night Out across America. Some 38 million people are expected to take to the streets and parks and playgrounds to participate. It’s an event designed to build the relationship between law enforcement officers and the people they serve. That relationship’s been strained in Newark where a federal monitor’s been imposed to oversee the police force. Correspondent Andrew Schmertz was at the event in Newark at West Side Park.

It promised to be a steamy night, but it’s the tension between the police and the community that the city hopes to really cool down. About 1,500 people are expected at West Side Park, a couple thousand at the other parks throughout the city for National Night Out. and there’s no doubt about it, it’s billed as a festive event. There’s free food. There’s music. There’s a couple of ponies walking around for the kids. However, it is the mission that is the serious business, and that is to get the police and the community together for a nonthreatening, relaxed environment to try to help improve those relations. The people we spoke with say the police are making progress but need to do a lot more. The mayor says that improvements have been made and will continue to do so.

“I think it’s improved. We got a long way to go, but I think it’s improved a great deal. We make fewer arrests. We also have managed to reduce crime at the same time. We get fewer complaints from residents about police behavior, so that’s a good thing. And the police are trying to walk a fine line between making sure they uphold the law and maintain people’s constitutional rights at the same time,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

“I think every night should be like this. Actually, I think tonight is very important. I think whenever the community interacts with the police and the police interact with the community, they get to know one another better. They get to talk. There’s relationships that develop,” said Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.

“I believe they have a lot of great ideas, but they need to implement those. We need to see the cops not just standing out here and policing, but actually partaking in some of these activities and socializing with the community. Because, quite frankly, people are afraid of the cops,” said Newark resident Lamont Booker. “I’ve always had a negative [experience] when it came down to police within this community.”

“I think they need to show the kids that they’re human. That’s the most important part, even for me, because I grew up out here. You know, so it’s like, they want to see that you can actually relate and talk to a cop, even though they have a gun and a badge. Yeah, they need to get out here and do more events, but, just dress down. Maybe they could have cops on the outside partaking, but for the most part just come in as a human,” said resident John Thompson.

One hundred twenty communities throughout the state are going to be participating in National Night Out. It’s not just police at the event — the fire department and branches of the federal government and the military are present as well. As for crime in Newark, it’s down about 8 percent overall in the city. But just about everyone agrees that what happens in the park is not going to be as important as what happens on the streets to improve community relationships.