MY EARLIEST ENCOUNTER with the police happened at the age of ten. I watched my father being beaten by officers as my siblings and I sat in the back seat of a car. My parents had pulled over to have an argument. Before anyone knew it, my father was being dragged from the car. I had to testify in court and try to recollect if the police handcuffed my father with his hands in front or behind his back. I remember growing up listening to stories about the Newark Rebellion in 1967 and how my father was beaten over the head by the police; one of the officers had been a high-school classmate.
In that case, my father was convicted of inciting a riot. He was a poet. As evidence, the prosecution actually read one of his poems in the courtroom to prove his guilt. Growing up as a young black man in the city of Newark, New Jersey, I experienced being stopped, searched and even beaten by police. Some cops were notorious for violating people’s rights and wore it like a badge of honour.
As I grew older, I vividly remember officers marching to City Hall with shirts that read “Blue Crew” and turning their backs on the black mayor, Sharpe James, for trying to discipline an officer who had shot and killed an unarmed woman at point-blank range. To push back against this, I participated in and even led marches and rallies against police brutality and racism, and called for the creation of a Civilian Review Board in my community.
For many people who look like me, this is the reality of our daily lives. It is why we strive to reform and transform police practices, and put an end to every aspect of this unbearable injustice. The momentum for change exists, seen by the protests in cities across America and the world calling for justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others.
There are concrete steps that cities can take to improve policing. In Newark, where I am mayor, the effort has centered on community engagement, reducing violence and strong oversight.
To improve police and community relations, we have worked to ensure that the composition of our police force reflects the predominantly brown and black residents of our city. Many of our officers were born in Newark and many more call it home. My administration is trying to codify that by calling for state legislation that would require that Newark officers live in the city for at least five years after they join the department, to be a part of the community they serve.
Getting the police and community together regularly is essential. We hold round-tables with police and residents, and have neighbourhood police councils in precincts, which are their local headquarters. More importantly, as the police redesign their use-of-force policies (which they are required to do under a settlement with the Department of Justice), we hold a community meeting to get input on the changes to ensure they are in fact helpful to the community.
The city also organises and trains what we call “citizen clergy”. They are residents who agree to take classes on public safety and conflict prevention, who are then called in to assist in volatile situations. They helped to ensure that the city’s protests against racism and police brutality remained peaceful.
Violence or violent crime is the biggest reason why communities like Newark are over-policed. Efforts to reduce it through alternative, community strategies help us move away from this and help police see that they are a piece of a larger effort to provide safety. In June the city created an Office of Violence Prevention, which treats violence as a public-health issue and works with residents on trauma recovery.
It will be housed in the very building that was the site of the inflammatory police actions that fueled the 1967 rebellion. It will stand as a monument to the long history of struggle and transformation of our police department, but more importantly, it will help reduce violence by engaging in alternative, community-based strategies like conflict resolution, safe passageway to school, programmes to reduce retaliatory violence and more.
Around the country there are calls to “defund the police”. In Newark, it takes the form of diverting 5% (around $12m) of our public-safety budget towards alternative, community-based strategies, such as the new Office of Violence Prevention. We understand the need for police. We also know that the police do not hold the answers to the deeper, structural issues that create violence in our community, hence our efforts to reduce violence and crime. Ultimately, we believe that the community should control the police.
Importantly, Newark established one of the nation’s most muscular Civilian Complaint Review Boards in 2016. It was designed to have the power to investigate police misconduct, subpoena documents and officers, review police policies that might lead to abuse, and submit regular reports to the public. However it is not operating, being mired in legal proceedings by the police union which fears it is too powerful. But if the board goes ahead, it will improve transparency and accountability because the police have shown an inability to discipline themselves.
A reason for optimism is that these and other measures seem to be having an effect. Arrests and crime have been declining since 2014, when I took office. Complaints against officers are down by more than 80%. The money we spend on defending the police against lawsuits for excessive force is at a record low.
Unlike 1967, when people stood at the 4th precinct building as the city burned, last month residents gathered in front of the police building in that same precinct to express their outrage at police violence around the country—but also to prevent demonstrators from destroying what so many have worked to rebuild. ■
Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
This guest commentary is part of an occasional series on “Policing in America”. More articles can be found at Economist.com/by-invitation