NEWARK, N.J. — In some of the most-policed parts of this majority-Black city, it seems that everyone has a story of mistreatment by law enforcement officers — or has a relative or a friend with one.
“It’s become the norm. You become desensitized to it,” Ryan Harris, 23, said during a break from a recent pickup basketball game in Newark’s South Ward. He described getting a “rough ride” in a police car without a seat belt after a 2018 arrest on a misdemeanor assault charge. “We just take it, and try to avoid them.”
“The situation has always been the same,” Ahmad Hodges, 20, added. He said he’d been subject to a rough ride himself a couple years ago, but also more routine interactions in which police talked to him and other young men condescendingly, which he took as a lack of respect. “Nothing’s changed.”
That sense of resignation among young Black men is one of the many obstacles Newark faces as it tries to transform its police force and repair the agency’s reputation for brutality and racism. City leaders say Newark can serve as an example to the rest of the country in the wake of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as communities rethink the role of the police in public safety. But while Newark offers a path forward, it also presents a lesson on how hard it is to change, even when reform is embraced by a city’s elected leaders and supported by police commanders.
Four years since Newark’s police department agreed to a settlement with the Department of Justice to end the routine violations of people’s civil rights, officers are stopping more people and using force more often, according to an analysis of police data by NBC News. The data also show that Black people were still 1.5 times as likely as white people to get stopped — and 2.7 times as likely to be subjected to force — last year. Police say the rise in stops and use of force is the result of better reporting and that residents are not profiled by race.
At the same time, a civilian oversight agency — a cornerstone of Newark’s attempt to restore the public trust in the police — has been upended by the local officers’ union, which has sued to keep it from conducting its own investigations of misconduct.
The department must also change the minds of people such as Harris and Hodges, whose views of Newark police soured long ago. More than a quarter of the residents said in a 2018 survey that they had little or no trust in the police, while 54 percent said the police discriminated against people based on race or ethnicity, and nearly half said they worried excessive force would be used on them.
The chronically toxic relationship in Newark between the police and the public dates to the city’s deadly 1967 anti-police riots and culminated in 2011 with the Department of Justice launching an investigation into allegations of widespread civil rights violations. The probe was a response to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which documented dozens of examples of people being mistreated by Newark police and the force’s failure to properly investigate them.
The Justice Department’s findings, released in 2014, revealed a pattern of unconstitutional stops, arrests and use of force, with most of those violations targeting Black people. Then-newly elected Mayor Ras Baraka — the activist and educator son of poet Amiri Baraka — agreed to reform the department, and in 2016 the city agreed to a settlement that required sweeping reforms and was given a five-year deadline.
Since then, the police department has begun anti-bias training, revamped its use-of-force policies, taken a harder line against problem officers, stepped up investigations into excessive force, and expanded programs to improve community relations, according to local officials and the court-appointed monitor overseeing the city’s compliance with the settlement, called a consent decree. The department has also hired 600 officers who know the job only under the federally mandated measures, police say.
Their work is complemented by a network of neighborhood-based organizations that aim to curb violence by sending social workers to address mental illness and homelessness and former offenders to mediate disputes. These types of programs, long sought by activists, have recently become part of a national conversation about reducing the police’s role in some public safety functions.
In June, Baraka announced that some of the city’s anti-violence work would be headquartered in the precinct station where the 1967 riots were sparked by the police beating of a cab driver. The building is also where the police and the protesters faced each other peacefully following the demonstrations against Floyd’s killing on May 25.
City leaders and longtime activists have pointed to that encounter, in which police stood back while a crowd of protesters intervened with a smaller group poised to begin destroying property, as a sign that the reforms are working. They say that by coming to terms with its ugly past, the 1,077-officer department — which is now 34 percent Black and 44 percent Hispanic — has made itself worthy of the public’s trust.
“We can be a model. People will be coming here to see what we’re doing,” Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said at a news conference in June.
Many activists and community workers, including some of the department’s most vocal critics, say there don’t seem to be as many people coming to them with concerns about the police using excessive force. There have been few high-profile killings or uses of force by the Newark police in the past couple years; the exceptions include an officer charged with aggravated manslaughter for fatally shooting a motorist in 2019 and an officer who has been reassigned and his gun taken away after he was caught on video punching a man in May.
Many credit Baraka for the changes, but they also acknowledge that reform wouldn’t have been possible without the federal government’s involvement.
As soon as Justice Department investigators arrived in Newark, there was a shift in officers' behavior, the human rights activist Larry Hamm, who has led protests against police brutality for decades, said. “And then, once they put the consent decree in place and Ras Baraka was elected mayor and ran on anti-police brutality as part of his platform, the federal government and the administration got on the same page and we began to see a change.”
Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the Justice Department has retreated from civil rights investigations of police departments, and avoided consent decrees.
Even with a consent decree, there are signs that Newark is falling short — and could miss its five-year deadline to meet the settlement’s demands.
The department’s new data-collection system reveals that police have stepped up their use of stops and force since the reforms began. In 2016, police stopped 2,086 people and used force 294 times, according to the department’s data. In 2019, there were 4,222 stops and 431 encounters in which force was used.
Those trends are worrisome to Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School criminologist whose studies of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies led to a judge’s 2013 ruling that the department’s tactics were unconstitutional.
“By this time, after four years, you’d like to see the numbers peaking and starting to go down — assuming there have been improvements in policing, and citizens are picking up on that, and the incidents are less loaded,” Fagan said.
The racial disparities in those encounters also persist.
In 2019, Black people were 1.5 times more likely to be stopped than white people, down from 2016, when they were twice as likely to be stopped, according to department data analyzed by NBC News. And when it comes to force, the racial gap has widened: Black people were 2.7 times as likely to be subjected to police force in 2019, compared to 1.9 times as likely in 2016. In the analysis, Black people included those identified as Black-Hispanic, and white people included those identified as white-Hispanic.
Peter Chen, a lawyer who lives in Newark and does his own analyses of police data, said the figures raise questions about Newark’s commitment to reversing the perception of police as an oppressive force in many neighborhoods. He thinks the police should end the practice of stop and frisk, as the New York Police Department says it has done.
“When there’s still racial disparities in stops and uses of force, it undermines all those attempts to build community relationships,” Chen said.
Ambrose, the public safety director, said the increase in stops and use of force reflect a more stringent reporting system that, prior to the 2016 reforms, was not rigorously followed. He acknowledged that Black people are more likely to be stopped and have force used on them.
“We don’t racially profile,” Ambrose said in an interview. “We act strictly when a crime is committed, or crime is afoot.”
He also said that the number of complaints alleging excessive force against officers has declined since 2010 while the quality of investigations has improved. The city is also paying less in settlements of excessive-force lawsuits, he said.
Peter Harvey, the first African American to serve as New Jersey’s attorney general and now the court-appointed monitor overseeing Newark’s compliance with the consent decree, said its officers “are not acting like an occupying force in the community — a much different relationship than five years ago.” But he said the department has not deployed systems to allow commanders to quickly analyze officers’ behavior.
Newark has also stumbled in its attempt to create a civilian oversight agency, which was part of the 2016 agreement. That year, the city created a civilian complaint review board that could independently investigate complaints of officer misconduct.
But the union representing Newark officers sued to strip the board of its most potent tool: the power to subpoena officers to testify. The state Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in June. The board, meanwhile, has been left largely toothless during the legal battle, monitoring the progress of complaints submitted to the department’s internal affairs unit.
Zayid Muhammad, an organizer for the Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, said an effective civilian complaint review board was essential to restoring the public’s faith in the police and making sure the department maintains its new path after the consent decree is deemed completed.
“I don’t trust this until we get the civilian oversight secured, because the feds can come and go,” Muhammad said.
The police union did not comment.
Will Simpson, a senior strategist for a program run by the social justice nonprofit Equal Justice USA, which brings together police and community members to talk about violence and trauma, said Newark has a chance to be “a guiding light” for the rest of the country. But he said the reforms are still “filtering down” to residents, including young Black men who remain troubled by the police talking down to them, harassing them or treating them as if they are suspicious.
“Because of mistrust, it is a much harder bridge to cross among men between the ages of 16 and 25,” Simpson said.
They include Papie Roberts, who was among the pickup basketball players who expressed skepticism that the police had changed.
Roberts, 19, said he is still traumatized by the memory of watching both his mother and his father getting arrested in their underwear early one morning several years ago by officers who threatened to break down their door while serving warrants accusing them of failing to pay for rides on a city bus.
Last year, his parents, who are now activists, helped him get an internship in City Hall, where he met Ambrose and had some positive interactions with the police brass. But he said it will take more than that to change his view of the police.
“My general impression of the cops is you don’t feel safe around them, you don’t trust them,” he said.