Civil rights, community organizations urge council to give Newarkers a permanent vehicle for holding police accountable at historic hearing on civilian review board ordinance

NEWARK – Surrounded by supporters and community members, Newark’s leading advocates for police accountability today called on the Newark Municipal Council to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board (CCRB) to hold Newark police officers accountable for wrongdoing. The council held its first hearing today for an ordinance to create one of the strongest police review boards in the country. A final vote on the ordinance is expected March 16.

“Throughout all my years in Newark, whether as a police officer, an academic or a community activist, I have never seen so much potential for real, lasting reform,” said John Smith, a former Newark police officer, and current professor at Essex County College and member of the NAACP of New Jersey. “This proposal for a CCRB before the council, by permanently putting power into the hands of independent, knowledgeable, concerned community members, could usher along the departmental rebirth residents have sought for more than 50 years.”

On April 30, 2015, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board in Newark. Newark communities praised Mayor Baraka’s order, and the ordinance being considered today by the Municipal Council would codify that order into permanent law and ensure that the civilian review board outlasts any one mayoral administration. Mayor Baraka and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose voiced their support for the CCRB ordinance in statements before the council hearing.

“I don’t want my sons to have to go through what I did coming up, knowing that if I wanted to visit my friends or family members, there was a good chance I would be stopped by the police for no good reason,” said Laquan Thomas, a community advocate and staff member at the Ironbound Community Corporation. “With a permanent CCRB in Newark, my children would get an important layer of protection for their rights that I didn’t have. I don’t know when the abuse in our community is going to stop, but I do know that if the council passes a CCRB, we’ll get a lot closer.”

The review board, as proposed in the bill and laid out in the mayor’s executive order, empowers an 11-member panel, a majority of which will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, to review complaints against the city’s police department, and provides the panel with subpoena power, the power to audit police policies and practices, mechanisms to enhance transparency in the police department, and the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing.

“As communities across the United States struggle with the daily injustices of police misconduct, Newark’s civilian review board can be a national model for creating strong and independent civilian oversight of the police,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Newark communities have been calling for the creation of a civilian review board since the 1960s. Today’s hearing is an important step in a decades-long struggle for accountability and justice. With the passage of this ordinance, we are that much closer to a permanent check on police abuses.”

As outlined in the ordinance and executive order, the civilian complaint review board will be invested with much-needed authority, including the power to:

  • Investigate complaints of police misconduct. The board will be empowered, with subpoena authority, to investigate civilian complaints about NPD officers’ improper use force; unlawful searches, stops, and arrests; and even discourteous treatment, such as cursing or slurs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other protected categories.
  • Ensure that disciplinary decisions stick. Only a “clear error” in the board’s investigation will allow the Public Safety Director to reject a finding of fact from the board. The Public Safety Director will then use a pre-negotiated discipline matrix to dole out appropriate punishments.
  • Audit the department’s policies and practices, including investigations of patterns that reveal racial disparities in enforcement of laws, or any other issue of public safety or police-community relations
  • Build transparency into the Newark Police Department. The board will be empowered to provide the public with information about complaints it receives, police stops, uses of force, arrests, stop-and-frisk activity, and money paid by the City in settlements or judgements from claims filed against the department. Its meetings would be public.

“The regularity by which we bear witness to the tragic deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of law enforcement reminds the whole country that we have failed to hold police officers accountable when they violate the public trust,” said Milly Silva, Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East. “Newark can and must lead the nation forward in demonstrating that communities can play a critical role in holding police accountable, and that, indeed, black lives matter.”

The members of the panel would be chosen by a diverse group of stakeholders. As laid out in the ordinance, the city’s Inspector General and three designees appointed by city council members will serve on the board, as well as seven board members nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, La Casa de Don Pedro, People’s Organization for Progress, and a representative from the clergy. Five out of the seven community-based organizations listed in the executive order are steering committee members or endorsing members of N-CAP.

“We need a permanent, independent review board with the power to make discipline stick,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that this civilian review board is strong, independent, and capable of holding police officers to the highest standards of professionalism.”

The hearing comes as the city and the United States Department of Justice move closer to the appointment of a federal monitor to implement a pending consent decree to oversee reforms of the NPD. A three-year Department of Justice investigation, which followed an ACLU-NJ petition calling for such an investigation, confirmed widespread civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the NPD, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, theft by officers, and a dysfunctional internal affairs structure. The report found that approximately 75 percent of stops in Newark lacked a constitutional basis.

“The council’s approval of a CCRB is a key part of building trust between the community and law enforcement,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “We must build effective oversight of the police department that becomes permanent in Newark and will outlast any one Mayor or federal monitor. We push forward so that our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity as we have.”

N-CAP will be educating and mobilizing the public to take action in support of the CCRB leading up to the expected March 16 vote.

“Our collective call today for the Newark Municipal Council to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board reflects our belief that there has to be a much-needed paradigm shift in order to improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” said Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Law enforcement accountability is an essential aspect of our broader vision of building and empowering healthy urban communities.”

Prior to the hearing, N-CAP delivered a letter (PDF) to members of the Council encouraging support for the CCRB ordinance signed by 27 local, state, and national civil rights and police accountability organizations, including Black Lives Matter NJ, Campaign Zero, La Casa de Don Pedro, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, and the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.

“The Newark Municipal Council must act on its duty to ensure that civilian oversight of police has a central, permanent role in our city, and this hearing is an important start,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, N-CAP organizer. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability. The CCRB must be empowered to make sure that officers are disciplined when they abuse Newarkers’ rights. Due to the void of trust in the police, communities need an independent body that is not beholden to the old, failed ways of doing business. With the establishment of this CCRB, the days of letting police officers police themselves will start to approach an end.”

N-CAP, launched in September 2014, comprises steering committee members 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, ACLU-NJ, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP-New Jersey State Conference, NAACP-New Jersey Newark Chapter, New Jersey Communities United, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and the People’s Organization for Progress, as well as organizational members American Friends Service Committee, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and Newark LGBTQ Community Center.

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