In 2016, months before the end of former President Barack Obama’s second term in office, the city of Newark, N.J., and the Department of Justice reached a deal to overhaul policing in the city under court order, or consent decree. The deal followed a three-year investigation revealing “vast racial disparities” in arrests, extensive corruption and a troubling pattern of hundreds of allegations of use of excessive force.
Six years later, Newark — a metropolitan city of more than 300,000 with a majority of Black and brown residents — is in the midst of transformational change in its public safety policy, according to a new report released this month. Its community-centered policy approach prioritizes healing trauma, rather than simply penalizing those responsible for it.
“Newark is no longer on the ‘top 10 most violent city list,’ where it had a coveted position for almost 50 consecutive years,” Aqeela Sherrills, founder, president and board chair of the Newark Community Street Team, a group of dedicated residents aiming to reduce violence by defusing conflict, told Yahoo News. “There's still a lot of work that has to be done, but there's a lot of changes that have been made.”
The new report released last week, titled "The Future of Public Safety: Exploring the Power & Possibility of Newark’s Reimagined Public Safety Ecosystem," shows how eight years of significant investment in community-oriented social services and trust-building initiatives between police and residents have led to a dramatic reduction in crime, a sharp decrease in homicides and an entire year in 2020 where no officer fired a single shot. Its insights were commissioned by the mayor’s office, the Newark Community Street Team and Equal Justice USA (EJUSA), a national criminal justice reform group.
To build trust within the community, Newark holds biweekly roundtables between police officers and residents and has developed rapid-response teams of violence interventionists and social workers who are dispatched to a scene to identify immediate and long-term needs. The city has also invested heavily in community-focused programs. In November 2021, the city dedicated $19 million to violence reduction strategies for the next three years. In addition, just last year, the city reallocated 5% of the public safety budget, about $12 million annually, to create a fully staffed Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery.
As a result, crime across the board has gone down, according to the report and FBI data. Recorded homicides have decreased by more than 50% since 1990, and this trend accelerated in the 2010s. In 2019, for example, Newark recorded 51 fatalities, down from 94 in 2016 and 72 in 2017.
“One of the things that's happening in Newark is that we're seeing a real paradigm shift around this idea that law enforcement exists as this ubiquitous agency that is responsible for all of safety and community,” Sherrills said. “The development of community violence intervention, or what we call community-based public safety, has been really important in the city of Newark as a complementary strategy to our policing.”
Members of the street team, in particular, have long-standing ties to the Newark community and are trained to mediate ongoing disputes.
“We’re trying to prevent retaliation,’’ Solomon Middleton Williams, deputy director of the Newark Community Street Team, told Route Fifty, a news publication that covers trends in state and local government across the U.S.
Local law enforcement is also buying into the reimagined public safety approach, thanks to the open partnership that’s developed.
“The community-based public safety approach has been highly successful, because it is collaborative, involving both law enforcement partners and community-based partners,” Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara told Yahoo News, adding that reallocating funds to social services allows officers to focus on their job of protecting residents, while securing for those in need the acute services they require.
“Currently, these funds support the hiring of one social worker for every 10 Newark police officers hired,” he said. “It also allows for the city’s social workers to be embedded in each precinct. Through their services, crime victims and those involved in committing crimes can receive needed support.”
As recently as 2013, CNN ranked Newark one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the United States. In rankings this year, however, from the real estate analytics website Neighborhood Scout, Newark did not even appear in the list of the top 100 most dangerous U.S. cities — evidence of its steady progress in the past decade.
The authors of the new safety report hope the 60-page disclosure can be a blueprint for other cities to reimagine public safety.
“When I think about public safety, it's the public that actually centers the community and those most impacted by violence, and safety that is more than just the absence of violence,” Jamila Hodge, executive director of EJUSA, told Yahoo News.
“One real big goal of this report is just to get the word out. Especially now, at a time when violence is top of mind. … Right now, we're defaulting to the same old [mindset] of, violence is up, gun violence is increasing — we need more police, but we know that's not working. So what we haven't had are concrete examples to point to, to say, ‘No, this is a different way that can work.’ And so that's one goal of the report is to elevate what's happening in Newark.”
In Newark, with its systemic disadvantages for marginalized groups, the median household income is less than $38,000, and fewer than 16% of residents of the community have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Many advocates believe that if Newark can achieve such progress, it can happen in other major cities.
One of the biggest challenges, according to Hodge, was that police had been tasked with being the catch-all for residents who called 911, responding to public health issues, poverty and more. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who has been in office since 2014, sees this as a grave mistake.
“It is crucial for us to reevaluate public safety and examine what its future looks like in today’s society,’’ Baraka said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “Public safety can no longer be looked at through a punitive lens, it must also be looked at through a social lens. This viewpoint will allow us to address the needs of the ever-changing community.”
Baraka has been one of the leading catalysts for change in the city. As Newark’s leader, he inherited a city with escalating crime numbers and a police department crippled with dysfunction. In 2013, a year before Baraka took office, Newark saw 112 murders — the nation’s third-highest murder rate and the highest the city had seen in 24 years. With an emphasis on empathy, trauma and healing, Baraka’s coalition of community partners in 2019 helped reduce the number of murders in Newark to the lowest since 1961. There’s also been a steady decrease in the number of complaints received and hearings opened against Newark Police Department officers.
Newark, like many cities, has seen a recent uptick in violent crime since the pandemic, but it has not been as acute in other major cities. This year, 18 homicides have been recorded in the city, compared to 22 in the same period last year. Baraka acknowledges this, but says there’s no room for celebration just yet.
“We are definitely not putting a victory flag in the ground or taking a victory lap, but we clearly are doing a great job here in the City of Newark,” Baraka said at a Facebook Live meeting in December, adding that “One homicide is too many.”
Holding on to the positive news of progress in a city historically overlooked and ignored, Sherrills is quick to make a distinction between Newark's approach of reformation and reallocation and the “Defund the police” rallying cry of many progressives after the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020.
“We stay far away from that type of language, because we just don't believe in defunding the police,” he said. “We believe in reform and in reallocation of funds.
“It's just a false narrative. You can't defund the police,” Sherrills added. “I understand the sentiment because of the excessive force issues and the public execution of George Floyd as an inflection point in this country. … I just don't think that we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Andrew Burton/Getty Images, Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images