I fought for civilian review of police and served on a CCRB - and transparency matters now more than ever

March 17, 2021

Blog By Rashawn Davis
Former ACLU-NJ organizer and former member of the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board

The rallies and marches never grew old.

Each one was a solemn occasion, with detailed personal testimonies about police violence, almost always under a tangerine sunset outside of Newark City Hall.

Newark has a rich history in protest and pain, in riots and restoration. I marched alongside others in hopes of carrying on the legacies of so many who have been victims of police violence. One foot in front of the other.

I saw the same forward trajectory as a member of Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a board in which we, the people, place a check on police power and build a community-led structure for accountability.

I consider the role I had in creating Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, as an organizer with the ACLU of New Jersey, as one of the proudest achievements of my life. I have also had the honor of sitting on that board for the past two years.

My time on the board has shown me that this is some of the most important work we could be doing – and, at the same time, that the work of building better public safety is inevitably messy. But, above all, transparency and community engagement must be bedrocks for the board in perpetuity if it is going to succeed long-term.  

The Legislature is considering legislation, A4656/S2963, to enable the creation of strong CCRBs. A4656/S2963, sponsored by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter in the Assembly, and Senator Ron Rice in the Senate, was the subject of a committee hearing on March 17 in the Legislature. My experience has shown me why strong CCRBs are so important for real accountability.

I joined the ACLU of New Jersey staff as a community organizer in the summer of 2014, just after graduating college. That summer, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report that echoed allegations the ACLU-NJ had documented in a petition calling for DOJ intervention – shedding light on wrongs, neglect and deficiencies within the Newark Police Department. It found three-fourths of police stops lacked a constitutional basis.

The report was hard proof of what Newarkers had known for generations: that policing in this city had failed.

Following the federal investigation and report, Newark gained a robust consent decree, a federal monitor to implement reforms, and a strong public mandate that the time had come for change.

And, in 2016, one of the strongest models of civilian complaint review boards was advanced in an ordinance from Mayor Ras Baraka and approved unanimously by the Newark Municipal Council.

My work with the ACLU-NJ, and a coalition we formed with other advocates called Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, helped shape the CCRB, to give a real voice to the most impacted people - people like the late Mary Weaver who lost her son in a police shooting two decades earlier. People like Melvin Warren, who had retired from a long career in law enforcement but still had the humility and courage to admit that the profession he committed his life to was falling short of its purpose.

Like the Newarkers before us who called for a CCRB dating back to 1967, in the aftermath of the city’s rebellion sparked by police violence, we saw an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) as an opportunity to give people from across the city a real seat at the table of public safety.

The work that lies ahead of the board is great: navigating legal challenges to its legitimacy, while helping to build more just and inclusive policing in Newark and honoring its commitment to the community of openness and transparency. This work is difficult, and it will continue to be. I find hope in the passion brought by newer board members like Joe Johnson as well as the wisdom and resolve of board members who have been a part of this movement for years, decades and lifetimes.

My time on the board has also helped me realize that policing can’t be solved in a vacuum. It is not an end but part of  a beginning. Policing is symptomatic of so many other disparities in this country from wealth building to education - it's all related. We can’t solve one without interrogating the others.

To that end this moment we are in must continue to evolve into something larger: A sustained core mission to protect Black lives and build better policy models for all corners of society.

I’m forever grateful to all the activists, clergy, and neighbors for giving me the privilege of being a part of this incredible movement in Newark. Showing that when all else fails just start with a megaphone and one foot in front of the other.

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