by Jayson Hawkins
Amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, social protests, and political upheaval, many people felt as if anything that could go wrong in 2020 went wrong. The avalanche of tumultuous headlines tended to bury the positive stories that emerged—such as cops in Newark, N.J., not firing a single shot the entire year.
The lack of police violence seemed especially miraculous considering the tragic events unfolding elsewhere in the nation and the city’s past reputation for abuses. In 2010, the ACLU of New Jersey had called for an investigation into a culture of misconduct at the Newark Police Department (“NPD”). The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) complied in 2014. The ensuing investigation focused on a 30-month period, during which time the NPD was subject to over 400 claims of abuse. False arrests, police shootings, prisoner beatings, and sexual assault were all part of the lengthy list of misconduct allegations.
Given the evidence, the DOJ agreed with the ACLU that the NPD had repeatedly engaged in violations of constitutional rights including the use of excessive force, illegal searches, and unjust arrests. The findings resulted in a consent decree in 2016
A culture does not change overnight, however. The following year witnessed manslaughter and assault charges against one NPD cop after shooting into a moving car and killing one of the occupants. Another officer murdered his estranged wife.
The other issue surrounding the NPD’s pattern of abuses was the cost to taxpayers. During the same two and a half years of the DOJ investigation, the city of Newark spent $4.8 million to settle nearly 40 lawsuits against its police department, and court records showed a similar number of suits still pending.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have resisted calls for reform, claiming that changes would hamper the ability to do their job. The eventual effects of the consent decree in Newark suggest otherwise. Despite police not discharging any firearms in 2020, the city’s crime rate fell, and NPD managed to collect nearly 500 illegal guns.
The year also marked the first time in modern history that Newark did not have to compensate a single victim of police brutality.
Perhaps the change with the biggest impact on the NPD has been the way its officers are trained. Prior to the consent decree, programs had taught cops to view themselves as soldiers on a battlefield.
“It was a paramilitary kind of training, just focused on stopping the threat,” said Brian O’Hara, the deputy chief in charge of training. “Now the model is to calm things down, engage the threatening person, while creating distance or taking cover, and buying time until reinforcements arrive.”
The new system has not eliminated police violence. NPD kicked off 2021 with the shooting death of one resident. But the NPD says it is committed to change. “It’s about protecting the sanctity of every life,” O’Hara remarked.
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