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No Shots Fired: How Newark, New Jersey, Is Making Police Reform History


 


In 2020 the police in Newark, New Jersey, did not fire one shot in the line of duty. This dramatic statistic underlines the recent changes in a city once known for crime and a contentious relationship between officers and residents over a period of a continuous drop in violent offenses since 2015. In 2019 Newark had the lowest murder rate it had seen in six decades, and so far this year only one shot has been fired by an on-duty officer.

“It’s a dramatic change, but it goes along the lines with all the change that’s been happening in the last five years,” Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara told local station Fox 5 last summer.

For decades, the majority-Black city has been known only for violence and poverty and a history of police brutality against its residents.

“Historically, people know what we’ve been through in Newark,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said to PBS “Frontline” last year when asked why the city’s crime was not spiking as was happening in so many other big cities. “We needed police reform in 1967. And we burned the city down for three or four days. And we still need police reform. Fifth years later so they [residents], I think, in the heart, they understood that.”

Led by Baraka — who is the son of the legendary poet and social justice advocate Amiri Baraka — Newark has been able to fight crime and gun violence with community intervention instead of police. These changes began in 2014 after a federal consent decree was issued following a Justice Department investigation that concluded that there was a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing by the Newark police department, as well as a pattern of racial bias during traffic stops.

Aqeela Sherrills, a former gang counselor and peace broker in Los Angeles, has helped lead Newark’s community conflict resolution initiatives.

“The Newark Community Street Team is the mayor’s community-based public safety strategy,” Sherrills, the Newark Community Street Team director, said in an NCST video last year. “The division is to employ residents, nontraditional leaders as interventionists, as mentors, as outreach workers to be able to engage and resolve conflicts to a peaceful end.”

“There’s a lot of things happening from the civilian review boards, opportunities for the police to have better relationships with the police,” Baraka told the hosts of “The Breakfast Club” radio show last month. “Cops’ and kids’ programs, you know, whether you bring it back to community policing model, all these things that we’re trying to do to just change that entire relationship and move where we have a real police department that’s a part of the community and not occupying the community.”

With community policing and police accountability, Newark’s success with reform has many saying it should be a new standard.