Newark’s police force will remain under a court-ordered federal monitor through next summer, even as local officials tout major reforms and say they no longer need a highly-paid watchdog, which has cost city taxpayers $7.4 million over the last five years.
The city’s oft-troubled police department has been under scrutiny since a U.S Department of Justice investigation uncovered civil rights abuses and misconduct by officers in 2014. Newark and the U.S. Department of Justice reached a deal in 2016 to overhaul policing in the city under a court-enforced order known as a consent decree.
They also agreed to appoint former state Attorney General Peter Harvey as a federal monitor for five years and capped his payments at $7.4 million. Harvey’s job is to ensure Newark keeps its consent decree promises, but his predetermined July 2021 end date has come and gone, and he said the work still isn’t done.
The court overseeing the work had sided with Harvey, ensuring Newark will continue to have its own police watchdog. It plans to officially extend Harvey’s appointment for two years through July 2023, Newark officials said.
The two sides are still finalizing how much that will cost the city and what milestones they will need to meet during the additional time. Harvey also told the court that if the audits show compliance, his work can wrap up by July 2023, a June transcript shows.
Newark police were in a horrible space with this community before the consent decree and the oversight process began. We do see a considerable difference in how policing is done.
Harvey said in court records that the pandemic delayed his team’s planned audits. He did not respond to questions through a spokesperson, but in court transcripts said Newark’s former public safety director asked the monitor’s team to stop in-person meetings and audits in March 2020, when the pandemic first began to shut down public life.
Officials said Harvey’s team — which includes community advocates from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, former law enforcement professionals and academic experts from the Rutgers Center on Policing and the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice — has about another 20 audits left to do including assessing body-worn cameras, the department’s internal affairs operation, and the use of force by officers.
“The police have made tremendous progress as noted by the judge, as noted by the Department of Justice,” Mayor Ras Baraka, who has long advocated for police reform, told WNYC.
He said he disagreed that the city needed the federal monitor to stick around — especially as the city continues to pay his fees.
“I don't think we need a federal monitor that we pay millions of dollars to every year,” he said. “Ultimately the monitor is going to have to be the people of the city, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the council, all those people need to monitor the police progress.”
A troubled past
The ACLU-NJ first shined a light on Newark’s unconstitutional policing practices in 2010, when it petitioned the federal government to investigate the department, citing police misconduct and their violation of residents’ constitutional rights. The ACLU said 40 misconduct lawsuits had cost taxpayers $4.8 million in just under three years.
The DOJ opened an investigation in 2011. Three years later, then-U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said Newark police were engaging in a pattern of unconstitutional conduct by disproportionately stopping and arresting Black people, using excessive force in 20% of incidents, stealing residents’ property, and retaliating against people who questioned police actions. Three-quarters of police stops were unconstitutional, the probe found.
In the court deal to fix Newark’s policing, the city agreed to a series of reforms that includes additional training, ensuring pedestrian stops and car searches are constitutional, new policies around use of force by officers and new data systems to help prevent officer misconduct.
Newark and the DOJ agreed to appoint Harvey as the monitor to make sure the department stays on track. Newark agreed to cap fees at $7.4 million to the monitor and the team of experts he hired for five years of oversight. Invoices obtained by Gothamist through a public records request show the monitor and his team of lawyers and experts bill by the hour for work ranging from participating in community meetings, conference calls, helping draft new policies and training. The fees range from $50 -$535 an hour, itemized invoices show.
In the end people in the community understood that we kept coming back, that we were sincere and very real about making this process happen and that they had a voice in what our policies were, what our training looked like. People can see the difference.
Newark’s Police Division has implemented 16 new policies around pedestrian stops, handling evidence, bias-free policing and how to interact with LGBTQ residents. Newark’s Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara said police brutality lawsuits and taxpayer-funded settlements are down 90% in the most recent four-year period when compared to the four years prior to the consent decree.
Officers are also receiving an additional 40 hours of training each year, as required by the decree.
O’Hara said the monitor’s team provided “incredible help” at the beginning of the consent decree, setting up the framework to start systemic reforms and hard conversations with residents.
“In the end, people in the community understood that we kept coming back, that we were sincere and very real about making this process happen and that they had a voice in what our policies were, what our training looked like,” he said. “People can see the difference.”
But O’Hara said the process has become bureaucratic and focuses too much on scoring perfectly on the audits.
“Everything in a policy needs to be 95% perfect versus the essence of the consent decree requirements,” he said. “The more rules that you have, the easier it is to find something wrong. ‘Oh, you didn't check a box on this one report.’ That kind of thing, that's frustrating.”
A different path
New rules issued by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last September would address some of O’Hara’s concerns but won’t apply to Newark’s monitorship. Garland ordered a review last year of existing consent decrees when he restored the DOJ's use of the court orders that had been curbed under the administration of former President Donald Trump.
The review justified the use of federal monitors and said they serve as the “primary catalyst" in transforming agencies. The new rules, which only apply to future monitors, include capping fees to minimize costs to municipalities, setting term limits, holding a termination hearing five years into the monitorship and considering transferring some oversight duties to other agencies.
Zayid Muhammad, an organizer with Newark Communities for Accountable Policing, said the city’s police force has made marked improvements.
“It was absolutely necessary. Newark police were in a horrible space with this community before the consent decree and the oversight process began,” he said. “We do see a considerable difference in how policing is done.”
Muhammad said uniformed officers in particular have embraced reforms and the department has hired new younger officers and is offering more training.
“Where we hit a wall is with undercover police,” he said. “There is not sufficient buy-in throughout the police department’s ranks, particularly with undercover officers, and there's not sufficient accountability mechanisms to rein them in.”
The most recent quarterly reports by the federal monitor show Newark officers aren’t always turning their body cameras on during public interactions as required. Police also only complied with new rules around pedestrian stops 72% of the time, below the 95% threshold required to pass the audit that determines whether Newark is adhering to the terms of the consent decree.
The police department is also falling behind in implementing new data systems that track police behavior, which is required under the consent decree. The monitoring team wrote last year that the police division had only complied with one of the data system requirements.
Newark “will not be in a position to comply with consent decree requirements concerning its data systems unless the city commits substantial funding and resources to correct these issues,” the monitor wrote.
“Simply put, NPD needs updated and modern IT and data systems to be a modern police agency that provides high quality service to Newark residents.”
Muhammad said the city should continue to pay the federal monitor for as long as it takes for all residents to feel safe calling the police for help.
But, ultimately, a federal judge will decide when Newark has met its obligations under the consent decree.