Civil rights, community organizations hail the creation of a strong and permanent vehicle for police accountability, see the beginning of a new day in Newark
NEWARK - Surrounded by community members who took up the mantle of a 50-year fight for civilian-led police accountability, the Newark Municipal Council tonight voted unanimously to establish a permanent civilian complaint review board. Newark’s board is poised to become one of the strongest police oversight boards in the country. Currently, New Jersey has no CCRBs in operation.
“Throughout my decades 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. “And now, that potential is closer than ever to being realized. This oversight board, 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.”
The Council voted unanimously to pass a robust ordinance that will empower an 11-member panel to review complaints against the city’s police department. A sizeable majority of the board will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations. The new law gives the panel 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.
“I don’t want my children 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. “Now that we’ll have a permanent CCRB in Newark, my children have a better chance of getting 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 now, with a civilian oversight board passed into law, we’re closer to that point.”
On April 30, 2015, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board in Newark. The ordinance passed by the Municipal Council would strengthen and codify the Mayor’s 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’s first reading of the legislation on March 2.
“For 50 years the people of Newark have called for the creation of a civilian review board, and today Newark finally responded by creating one of the nation’s strongest police review boards,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “With passage of this law, the people of Newark will now have a powerful, permanent check on police abuses, one that can stand as a national model for strong and independent civilian oversight of police. At a time when communities across the nation struggle with the daily injustices of police misconduct, Newark has taken a historic step to create police accountability.”
As outlined in the ordinance and executive order, the civilian complaint review board will be invested with much-needed independent authority, including the power to:
- Investigate complaints of police misconduct. The board will be empowered with subpoena authority to investigate civilian complaints about Newark Police 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 judgments 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 is poised to lead the nation forward in demonstrating that communities play a critical role in holding police accountable, and that, indeed, Black lives matter.”
The members of the panel will be chosen by a diverse group of stakeholders. As laid out in the ordinance, the city’s inspector general and three designees appointed by Municipal 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, La Casa de Don Pedro, NAACP New Jersey, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, 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.
“For decades we have needed a permanent, independent review board that could make discipline stick, and today’s yes vote is the culmination of 50 years of tireless efforts to give that power to the people,” said Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. “We will work just as tirelessly to ensure that this civilian review board is as strong, independent, and capable of holding police officers to the highest standards of professionalism in practice as it is on paper.”
This vote 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 Newark Police. 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 Newark Police, 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, released on July 22, 2014, found that approximately 75 percent of stops in Newark lacked a constitutional basis.
“The Council’s approval of a CCRB will serve as a key part of building trust between the community and law enforcement,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, President, Newark NAACP. “For any oversight of the police department to be truly effective, it must be permanent and outlast any one mayor or federal monitor. We hope that through civil rights victories like this one, our grandchildren will not have to march the same paths for justice and sing the same songs for their dignity as we have.”
On March 2, before the first reading of the ordinance, N-CAP delivered a letter to members of the Council encouraging support for the CCRB ordinance signed by 26 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. Additionally, the CCRB has the support of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
“Our collective call 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. “That paradigm shift begins now. Law enforcement accountability is an essential aspect of our broader vision of building and empowering healthy urban communities.”
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.
“No matter what else may happen in the future, with this vote the Newark Municipal Council has ensured that civilian oversight of police has a central, permanent role in our city,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, N-CAP organizer. “Newark cannot afford a CCRB that lacks the power to deliver on its promise of accountability, and this ordinance gives the people of Newark the authority to truly discipline police officers who abuse their position. With the establishment of this CCRB, the days of letting police officers police themselves will start to approach an end.”