Consent Decree Forges Path Ahead to Newark Police Accountability

March 30, 2016

Federal monitor installed to oversee Newark police; ACLU-NJ will continue push for long-lasting reforms

NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey welcomed the consent decree signed March 30 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the City of Newark as a historic step in reforming the city’s long-troubled police department.

Following a U.S. DOJ investigation of the Newark Police Department (NPD) that found widespread civil rights abuses and that came after a 2010 ACLU-NJ petition calling for such an investigation, the agreement to reform the state’s largest municipal police force includes an independent monitor to oversee implementation of the reforms as well as benchmarks to ensure the Newark Police Department’s compliance with the agreement. Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey has been appointed to the monitor position.

“For 50 years the people of Newark have called for federal oversight of Newark policing, and today’s announcement marks a historic moment in that long struggle for a fair, just and accountable police force,” said Udi Ofer, ACLU-NJ Executive Director. “But now the hard work begins of transforming a police department that has long engaged in widespread constitutional violations. The Justice Department will be in Newark for only a few years. Now Newark must implement reforms that will outlast any one federal monitor. The consent decree entered into today is a crucial next step toward building a police force that upholds civil rights and is accountable to the people of Newark.”

Together with Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Paul Fishman entered into an agreement in federal district court to overhaul the way Newark’s police do business. These measures will be court-enforced and independently monitored. Some of the remedial measures include:

  • New policies and trainings to end unconstitutional and discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, arrests of Newarkers for exercising First Amendment-protected rights, and theft by Newark police officers
  • Requirements for in-car and body-worn cameras
  • Community oversight of the NPD, part of which is already set to take place through a city ordinance passed March 16 establishing one of the nation’s strongest police civilian review boards
  • A discipline matrix standardizing process and penalties for police misconduct
  • Strengthened Internal Affairs procedures, including audit requirements
  • Enhanced data collection and analysis to ensure fair and just policing practices
  • An early warning system to raise red flags of unconstitutional officer behavior and encourage constitutional policing
  • Community engagement to strengthen police-community relations

In July 2014, following a 2010 ACLU-NJ petition documenting 418 allegations of police abuse, the Department of Justice released a report finding widespread civil rights and civil liberties violations in Newark policing, including unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk and arrest practices, excessive use of force, punishment of Newarkers exercising their First Amendment rights, quotas, theft by officers, and a failed internal affairs system.

The consent decree outlines requirements for the Newark Police Department in carrying out reforms. Specifically, the consent decree requires the NPD to develop strong policies and conduct regular trainings designed to protect Newarkers from unconstitutional stops, frisks, and arrests. These requirements, along with protections against racially biased-policing and strong bans on unlawful use of force such as chokeholds, are among the highlights of the agreement.

The ACLU-NJ expresses concern regarding some gaps in the consent decree, particularly around creating a more transparent, and thus accountable, police department. For example:

  • While the agreement demands that all “studies, analyses, and assessments” required by the agreement will be made publicly available, it does not require the raw, underlying data be available, with adequate privacy protections, for independent analysis and assessment.
  • The section addressing body-worn cameras generally requires officers to give notice to civilians that they are being recorded to protect their privacy rights. But, troublingly, it fails to guarantee public access to those records, when permitted by law, and allows officers to review recordings in which they are featured without specifying when that review would occur, which can jeopardize the integrity of an investigation.
  • The agreement includes positive provisions to prevent a chilling effect on recording police officers, but it also allows officers to seize recording devices without a clear articulation of risk that the owner of the device would otherwise delete the footage.
  • Finally, while the limitations on illegal searches are generally strong, the consent decree appears to authorize pretextual vehicle stops with a supervisor’s approval.

The ACLU-NJ calls on the new monitor, Peter Harvey, to take a robust view of his monitorship to fill the gaps within the consent decree.

Since the release of the Justice Department report, the ACLU-NJ and our community partners in Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP) have pushed for greater accountability in the police department. On March 16 Newark responded through the creation of a Civilian Complaint Review Board that empowers an 11-member panel, a majority of whom will be nominated by community-based and civil rights organizations, to review complaints against the city’s police department. The civilian review board will have subpoena authority, the authority to make sure discipline sticks when officers are found to have engaged in wrongdoing, the power to audit police policies and practices, and mechanisms to institute robust transparency in the police department.

“What we’ve been looking for in a monitor is, above all, someone in sync with the Newark community who makes the civil rights of its residents a priority of the department,” said Jasmine Crenshaw, ACLU-NJ Organizer. “We’re hoping that the new monitor, Peter Harvey, makes the community’s concerns his own by ensuring community participation and input in every step of the monitoring process.”

About a month after the DOJ issued its findings, the ACLU-NJ and community allies sent recommendations to Newark and DOJ regarding the substance of the consent decree, including requirements for strong community oversight and monitoring; a diverse, unbiased police force that reflects the communities it serves; a focus on community policing versus aggressive stops; early warning systems; transparency; and training.

“The ACLU of New Jersey has fought for decades for police accountability in Newark and we have no plans to let up now,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “We will continue to work with the people of Newark to make sure federal oversight results in a fair and accountable department. This is a victory for the decades of Newark community advocates and activists who have been tireless in their calls for justice. Justice was delayed but it has not been denied.”

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