Protesters across the country are demanding systemic change to how their communities are policed. But in Newark, New Jersey, the struggle stretches back decades. While New Jersey’s largest city is in some ways a model of how a protest movement can force change, it also underscores the difficulties — and limits — of police reform. 

Thomas Ibiang, 40, runs a youth summer camp at the basketball courts in Weequahic Park. It’s in Newark's South Ward, a mostly Black neighborhood with one of the city’s highest rates of poverty.

And on one recent morning, Ibiang, who goes by the name Afrika, wasn't cutting the young men any slack.

“If you wanna look silly, I’m gonna put it on Instagram," he told the players. 

Afrika grew up in Newark, a city where police have a long, fraught history with residents. He said he often sees police stop and frisk kids as young as 12- or 13-years-old. 

"Patting them down, checking them to see if they have drugs on them. You've taken that person's humanity away because all you see of them is a criminal," he said. 

Newark’s police department — the largest municipal force in New Jersey with 1,2000 officers — says it’s in the process of developing a better relationship with the community. Over the years, the department has implemented a series of reforms that many cities are just starting to take on.

But it took Newark decades of protests, court battles, and a federal investigation to force this change.

It was 1967 when long-standing distrust between Newark’s majority Black residents and its mostly white police department came to a head. That July, five days of civil unrest broke out after cops arrested and beat a Black taxi driver during a traffic stop. Twenty-six people, mostly Black, died.

It was a key event for New Jersey’s largest city, one that residents still talk about to this day. What didn’t change was the continued hostility between residents and police.

Tensions culminated in 2014 when Paul Fishman, then serving as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney, announced the conclusion of a three-year probe into the department’s practices. His office found 85% of the people stopped by the police were Black in a city where the Black population was 54%. Federal investigators found three-quarters of all stops were unconstitutional.  

Newark agreed to make changes under a court-enforced order known as a consent decree. 

Afrika has lived Newark’s legacy of discriminatory policing. He still has scars from his violent run-ins with police. 

"The police stomped on the back of my head," he said, showing his scar on his upper lip from where his head was pushed into the concrete floor.

He thinks police still do have a role to play in the community, but there's currently over-policing. And those funds should be redirected into housing, education, and job training.

It sounds like he's calling for defunding the police — an effort that’s been catapulted into the mainstream by the recent George Floyd protests — but in a city where violence persists, Afrika said it’s not that simple. 

"Nobody's saying, like, you don't need police," he said. "There’s real people that sell drugs, who want to kill for territory and all of that. You have to deal with that."

At the height of the protests in May, thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Newark. As night fell, tensions escalated outside the First Precinct station house between officers and a small group of protesters who threatened to break into the building.  

Afrika was one of several local activists who intervened. It could have ended violently like it had in other cities, but it didn’t. Newark’s protest made national headlines for the lack of incidents between police and demonstrators.

Zayid Muhammad, an organizer for Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, said the incident outside the First Precinct showed the community was able to police itself.  

"Because we had people in the street anticipating the possibility of that, who were put here to be violence interrupters ... they were there and they said baby, we’re not doing that tonight," he said. "The police were in a position to step back and let our people work."

Muhammad said in some ways, the city has been ahead of the curve in the debate over defunding police. The city created a civilian street team — of outreach workers who connect residents with jobs — and a clergy alliance who accompany police on neighborhood patrols "who represent alternative ways to combat social problems without the police being involved," he said.

Many Newarkers say they’re still traumatized by the police. But some of those same residents say they want more officers patrolling their neighborhoods. That's because even though crime has dropped dramatically in Newark over the last few years, it experienced a spike in homicides last month, like many cities.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka spoke during a Black Lives Matter march in June. Baraka built his identity in the city protesting street violence, first as a community organizer, then as an educator and a city council member, before he was elected mayor in 2014. 

He has said calls to abolish police are a “bourgeois liberal” solution to systemic racism. He spent his first years in office restaffing a police force that was cut during the previous recession.  But Baraka has also adopted some policies in line with calls to defund the police, like reallocating 5% of the department’s budget to create what he calls an office of violence prevention.

"White supremacy doesn’t begin and end with the police department. Because as we get focused on the police, let us not lose focus on the systems that created this, they are a symptom," he said at the protest.

The mayor is still fighting for one key reform sought by Newark activists for decades: a civilian complaint review board that can oversee police misconduct. 

The police unions have challenged the CCRB’s investigatory and subpoena powers in court. But Anthony Ambrose, who oversees the police department as Newark’s Public Safety Director, said he fully supports creating an oversight board. Ambrose is white and started his career as a Newark cop more than 30 years ago.  He said the department has increased its neighborhood walks and trained community liaisons who can help de-escalate situations, in an effort to reshape how citizens engage with police.

During a recent community forum, he talked about his vision for the department:

"Most of our work in policing we’re social workers, I call it a guardian versus warrior. Maybe most of the time we’re guardians; 20-22% of our workload deals with mental health, people with addiction, domestic violence," he said.  

The force is also more diverse with 44% Latino and 34% Black officers. While Black Newarkers make up half the city’s population, Latinos represent the fastest growing segment here, currently about 40% of the city.  

But the department’s own crime stats for the last quarter of 2019 show Black residents remain more than 1.5 times as likely to be stopped than white residents. And they’re more than three times as likely to have force used against them. 

Ambrose said in an email it’s wrong to assume everyone has an equal chance of an encounter with police. He says most shooting victims and suspects are Black. He says he’d like to see those numbers change but the department can’t fix the underlying issues that lead to crime. 

Back at the Weequahic basketball courts, Afrika’s 19-year-old son, Papie Roberts, said he still does his best to stay away from police. "It is not going to change now. I don't think it's going to change in the next five years, 10 years." 

As a young Black man, Papie knows he’s going to have to give the same talk to his future son as his father had with him.  

"This generation, we're gonna have to have that talk with our kids. Things you can’t do. Police pull you over, keep your hands on the steering wheel. Look straight. Don’t say nothing back," he said.