Newark Police Department Joins A Dozen Others Facing Federal Scrutiny
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's get a look at one of many police departments under scrutiny for its treatment of racial minorities.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Newark, N.J., is facing questions similar to those faced by police in New York, Baltimore or Ferguson, Mo. And we have a chance in New Jersey's largest city to glimpse what police are trying to do about it.
INSKEEP: Newark's police force is soon to become the latest department the federal government monitors for using excessive force. Last year, the Justice Department found Newark police had repeatedly violated black residents' civil rights.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang recently went to Newark to find out what policing looks like now.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's a complicated moment to become a cop in places like Newark, N.J.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAS BARAKA: You have a very difficult, difficult job in a very difficult and critical time.
WANG: Mayor Ras Baraka recently welcomed 51 new police recruits gathered at Abyssinian Baptist Church. They sat stone-faced in the blue glow of stained-glass windows. Among them was 22-year-old recruit Kyarah Foushee, a third-generation aspiring Newark cop, after her father, grandmother and grandfather, Joe Foushee.
JOE FOUSHEE: I was on a list in 1967 to be a police officer, and it was very unpopular at the time. It might be unpopular in a lot of quarters today.
WANG: Still, Foushee's granddaughter, Kyarah, said she understands where some of that tension between police and the people they serve comes from.
KYARAH FOUSHEE: I think sometimes police officers may abuse their power. I also think the community may feel threatened a little bit.
WANG: There's evidence of that threat in a damning report released by the Justice Department last July. An investigation found that about 75 percent of stops made by Newark police were illegal, many targeting black residents for loitering or wandering. The report says that kind of policing makes officers' jobs more dangerous and less effective.
K. FOUSHEE: It makes me nervous, but I know I'll do good. So if - you know, if you approach someone nicely, they wouldn't come at you disrespectfully. So just be respectful and get respect back.
WANG: Respect is part of what Newark police are trying to earn. And a year after the report, there's still plenty of work to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: In the black community...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stop police brutality in the black community.
WANG: On another day, a small group of protesters met in one of the city's high-crime neighborhoods. They stood near a sidewalk where police had found a 19-year-old man dying from gunshot wounds on an early Saturday morning. Jameelah Brown lives nearby. She said Newark police could do a better job.
JAMEELAH BROWN: They're just not out here enough for us. They're not. And then we're all just looked at as the bad guys, you know? And it's not that way.
WANG: Brown's son, Daquaan, said he's also disappointed in the police.
DAQUAAN BROWN: If they had something going on, it'd take a long time for them to come 'cause they don't care. Some of them want to see us die, man.
WANG: Newark's police director, Eugene Venable, says he knows that some neighborhoods want to see more police officers out on the streets, but the department is still trying to refill its ranks after budget deficits led to layoffs five years ago.
EUGENE VENABLE: We have to go where we can get the best for our buck. Right now, with the lack of resources that we have, we're down, like, 400 police officers.
WANG: Still, Newark is finalizing a consent decree with the federal government to reform the police department. Venable says the city's also buying body cameras, starting a civilian complaint review board and encouraging cops to walk through neighborhoods.
VENABLE: People have to know that you're serious about reducing crime, but you also have a heart, and you also have compassion.
WANG: But Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability, says lasting change will come after the consent decree and a federally appointed monitor are in place to overhaul how Newark does policing.
SAMUEL WALKER: Insurgents will have to more closely scrutinize officer conduct. And that's a huge learning curve. It may take a while.
LAWRENCE HAMM: I've been in this too long (laughter) to be overly optimistic.
WANG: Lawrence Hamm's an activist against police brutality in Newark with the People's Organization for Progress. He's seen politicians come and go, campaigning to reform the police, like former mayor and now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. This time, though, he says he's seeing some small signs of change.
HAMM: I think just the fact that the Newark police know that they're under scrutiny now by the Justice Department has had an ameliorating effect. I don't know how long it's going to last, but we'll see.
WANG: And Hamm says he won't stop calling for reforms. This Saturday, he's leading a march through the streets of Newark with the current mayor's support. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.