Newark, New Jersey: A model for police reform

In the wake of the protests that followed the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, communities across the country should rethink the role of police in public safety, and the best model of reform is Newark, New Jersey. Newark has not only reformed the conduct of police operations, it has also moved to a community-based model that does not rely on the police force alone to address violence.

Police brutality is a problem affecting African Americans across the country. Black communities nationwide have had to teach their children what to do when encountered by the police. “Driving While Black” is a term used by many in the Black community to describe racial profiling of African Americans—it implies that someone may be stopped by a police officer largely because of racial bias rather than any apparent violation of traffic law. 

But the evidence is much more concrete. A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on interaction between police and the public found that Black residents were more likely to be stopped by the police than White or Hispanic residents. When police initiated an interaction, they were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black residents than against White residents, and Black residents were more likely to have multiple contacts with the police than white residents. A study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of America (PNAS) found that Black men are 2.5 times more likely than White men and Black women are 1.4 times more likely than White women to be killed by the police during their lifetime.

Newark used to be the poster child of such policing issues, dating to the 1967 anti-police riots and culminating in 2011 with the Department of Justice launching an investigation into widespread allegations of civil rights violations. Since then, Newark has become the model for national reform. The police department incorporated anti-bias training, updated their use-of-force policies, penalized problem officers, stepped up investigations into excessive force, and expanded programs to improve relations with the community. Importantly, Newark does not rely on the police department  alone to curb the violence. A network of neighborhood-based organizations across the city sends social workers to address mental illness and homelessness. Former offenders are sent to mediate disputes. Community mediation allows the police department to work alongside the community and to continue to build trust with the community. This is consistent with another PNAS study that found that community-based intervention improved attitudes toward police and people’s willingness to cooperate.

Newark has made significant progress since the Justice Department found a pattern of unconstitutional stops, arrests, and use of force, with a majority of violations targeting Black people. In 2013, Newark had the nation’s third-highest murder rate among other large cities with about 111 homicides. As evidence of the progress, there were 35 homicides in 2020, according to the Uniform Crime Report and overall crime in the city reached a 50-year low in 2018.Black men and women are still traumatized by the past mistreatment by the police This trauma makes it much harder for the police to gain back the community’s trust. It is important, however , to solve this issue of trust because Black Americans make up at least 15 percent of the population in most cities in the country. It will take leadership that is willing to change policies and make difficult decisions. It takes police officers willing to change their mindset on policing and to develop stronger relations with the community. And even with all of that, it will take years to see the progress. Nevertheless, the success in Newark is astonishing and broader implementation of this model would help create a safer America for Black Americans.