A movement to bring reforms and accountability to the Newark Police Department is taking root. Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), a coalition of community and civil rights organizations dedicated to improving policing in the community, officially introduced itself Sept. 25 at the Unified Vailsburg Services Organization’s Community Center in the heart of Newark’s West Ward, at a community forum that featured a powerful evening of story-sharing.
Newark residents, activists, and community leaders heard from five courageous Newarkers who shared their stories of harassment and abuse by members of the Newark Police Department. Each storyteller expressed optimism that meaningful reforms could usher in a new era for the Newark Police Department.
Nyle’s story: Threatened with arrest for filming police officers
Nyle, a divinity student, research assistant, and freelance writer, recounted a shocking incident that unfolded after buying a breakfast sandwich in downtown Newark one morning.
He heard the police shout from a megaphone to another pedestrian, an African American man, “Stop running, or I’ll shoot you.” Nyle immediately began recording on his cellphone. Once the police noticed him, they said “You know, you’re gonna get locked up. You’re impeding an investigation.” The officers asked him to put his phone away, but Nyle knew his rights and continued recording.
“You are paid to protect and serve,” Nyle told the audience, referring to the police. “Not harass and bully.”
Damon’s story: Held in Jail for Two Days for Doing Nothing Wrong
Damon, an 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East employee, got arrested years ago when he bought a beer after getting off work at a construction site.
“White shirt, blue jeans – it was you,” he recalls the officer saying as he stopped him, although with no specific charge. When they looked up Damon’s information, they discovered warrants for his arrest, but for crimes committed by someone who had stolen his identity. Although Damon could prove it, it took him two days in jail before getting that chance. Finally, representatives from the sheriff’s department looked on the computer and confirmed the person in the photograph was not Damon.
“You’re supposed to be innocent before guilty. Not here,” Damon said. “I was guilty, guilty guilty.”
Laquan’s story: Human rights violated because he visited a friend’s house
Laquan, who works at the Ironbound Community Corporation, spoke of an interaction with police that happened just recently, in September 2014.
He came out of his friend’s house and stepped into car, and immediately two unmarked police cars sandwiched his vehicle. They pulled him out, guns drawn, and ordered his hands up. They searched him aggressively, asking if he had ever been arrested. The officers unbuckled his belt and pulled his pants down, shining a flashlight in search of anything to arrest him for. When he asked why, an officer said, “That’s a weed house,” referring to a three-unit apartment building. They tore apart his car and found nothing.
“I can’t go visit my friends and my family members without having to get harassed by the police?” Laquan said. “‘Oh, you’re in a high drug area.’ Where do you go in Newark that’s not a high drug area?”
Sadat’s story: Cased by police for walking with friends of different races
Sadat, who volunteers for the Ironbound Community Corporation, talked about an experience at an Ironbound park with a group of friends from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.
A few officers followed the group, asking where they were going. They said the group fit the description of a suspicious crowd. “I asked, ‘Out of curiosity, do you think you’re above the law?’” Sadat said. According to Sadat, the officer replied, “Yes. I am the law. I treat people the way I want to.” The officer told the group of young men to go home. They stayed at the park for a few more minutes, but with the police cars idling nearby, they ultimately left, not wanting to feel under a microscope.
Michael’s story: Held in handcuffs for walking home from baseball practice
Michael, who works at the Brick City Development Corporation and grew up in Newark’s South Ward, testified about the day he truly understood his grandfather’s warnings that police officers unfairly perceive young black men as dangerous.
He was on his way home from baseball practice at the age of 16 when an unmarked police car crept behind him, getting faster about two blocks away from his house. Suddenly, the car cut him off. The officers, one black and one either white or Latino, stopped him, searched him against a gate, handcuffed and humiliated him.
“I’m just sitting on the curb like a piece of trash, waiting to get picked up by the garbage man,” Michael said. “It felt like I was out there for hours, but when I got to my house, it turns out I was only there for only 20 minutes. But that 20 minutes felt like the longest time of my life.”
Michael shared a longer reflection of his encounter with police, and the trauma he still carries with him, in an opinion piece published online here: http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/09/for_one_young_black_man_in_newark_the_talk_was_about_police_opinion.html
Highlighting the Movement’s Goals
Each of the stories told emphasized the need to achieve N-CAP’s three primary goals:
- Build a culture of respect and cooperation between the NPD and Newark communities.
- Establish community advisory boards that facilitate a positive, productive police-community relationship, develop community leadership, and provide feedback to the NPD from Newark communities.
- Create strong, independent civilian oversight of the NPD that investigates and disciplines officers for misconduct, reviews policies and procedures, and increases transparency.
N-CAP’s steering committee members include: 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Garden State Equality, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, Newark LGBTQ Community Center, and the People’s Organization for Progress.
You can keep tabs on N-CAP by following @ReformNewarkPD on Twitter.
Photo at top: Newark storytellers and Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP) steering committee members celebrate the launch of N-CAP on Sept. 25, 2014. (Left to right) Damon, ACLU-NJ organizer Rashawn Davis, Laquan, 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East Executive Vice President Milly Silva, Michael, Nyle, and Newark LGBTQ Community Center’s Alicia Heath-Toby.