A Petition for Justice in the Newark Police

This op-ed appeared in the Star-Ledger on Thursday, September 9, 2010

banner_police_pet_200: Newark Police Department Petition for Justice

In the aftermath of Newark's infamous 1967 unrest, with stacks of citizen complaints in hand, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey made an impassioned plea to the federal courts to rein in the rampant Newark Police Department.

Decades later, after countless lawsuits and campaigns for reform failed to bring order to the department, the ACLU-NJ has taken another serious measure to address grave injustices against Newark citizens. Today we petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Newark Police Department, building a case for the federal agency to end the entrenched patterns of police abuse.

New Jersey made history with its most famous federal intervention. The consent decree signed in 1999 to address the New Jersey State Police's racial profiling practices brought major reforms to all areas of its operations. Similar consent decrees have transformed troubled police departments in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles and inspired officials in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. to personally petition the DOJ to intervene.

The ACLU-NJ's petition is 96 pages long, although its 407 allegations cover only the past two and a half years. It details a systemic deprivation of citizens' constitutional rights, including excessive force, sexual misconduct, false arrests and planting of evidence. The underlying pattern reveals a culture of lawlessness and recurrent conflict between superiors and subordinates.

When Mayor Cory Booker and Police Director Garry McCarthy entered office promising a new era of reform, no one had higher hopes for their success than the ACLU-NJ. But even McCarthy's depth of expertise and Booker's sincerity of vision are not enough to turn around a department that has so far proven incapable of self-transformation.

McCarthy's challenges are colossal. As Police Director, he has inherited a culture of cronyism and reciprocity; insufficient human and technological resources; laws and ordinances that impinge on police operations; and restrictions signed into union contracts and civil service rules that tie his hands in making personnel decisions. It's not an environment that allows leaders to nurture talent or uphold discipline.

Over the past four years, the ACLU-NJ has pushed mightily for change — promoting specific reforms, educating the public about citizens' rights, and filing lawsuits — but any progress has moved glacially. We have persistently urged the city to implement the one reform capable of reversing the department's many problems: establishing an independent monitor with the power to audit its operations and to mandate the reforms that would truly reshape it.

070711_doj_cards: Jessa DeGroote & Valerie Werse

ACLU-NJ interns Jessa DeGroote and ValerieWerse distribute cards with contactinformation for the Department of Justiceat Broad and Market streets in Newark.The ACLU-NJ has handed out thousandsof cards throughout Newark, urging peopleto contact the Department of Justiceif they have been abused bythe Newark Police.

Having exhausted virtually all other avenues, we now turn to the federal government on behalf of the citizens of Newark. The problem is too large to address by drawing on Newark's starved resources alone. The tools, expertise and authority needed to assess the department's inner workings, create a blueprint for change, and monitor progress can come only from the outside.

By the end of the federal monitoring of the State Police in 2009, the initial aversion to the consent decree had evolved into a sense of gratitude. The advanced training, new technologies, and sophisticated systems for identifying potential misconduct raised professionalism and morale across the board. Colonel Rick Fuentes, head of the State Police, exalts the changes in his agency that resulted from the federal intervention.

Unfortunately, the federal courts in 1967 did not come to Newark's aid, and its citizens suffer the consequences to this day. We can only hope that the Department of Justice will see things differently, and that the Mayor and Police Director will welcome federal involvement as a chance to redouble their efforts at reform with the benefit of a powerful partner.

The sooner the process begins, the sooner Newark's citizens and civil servants alike can step back and see the progress their city has made.

Deborah Jacobs is executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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