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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and others have committed to reforming policing and healing the trauma that has haunted New Jersey's largest city since a deadly uprising in 1967.
Newark, New Jersey passed a grim milestone in 2013 when it recorded 112 murders. Only Detroit and New Orleans, among big cities, had higher murder rates.
The following year, the city established the Newark Community Street Team, a cadre of outreach workers who aim to reduce violence by defusing conflict, building trust and empowering victims.
The street team is part of a larger effort, championed by the city’s activist mayor, Ras J. Baraka, to reform policing and heal the trauma that has marked New Jersey’s largest city since an uprising that unfolded over the course of six days in 1967 left 26 people dead.
“It is crucial for us to reevaluate public safety and examine what its future looks like in today’s society,’’ Baraka said in a new report that examines the city’s reform initiatives. “Public safety can no longer be looked at through a punitive lens, it must also be looked at through a social lens. This viewpoint will allow us to address the needs of the ever-changing community.”
Baraka’s initiative is built on the premise that the people of Newark hold the key to their own fate. It’s a message activists hope can be adopted by other cities seeking to shift the public safety narrative.
“After the public execution of George Floyd, people were ready to step into the conversation about what safety looks like for people of color around the country and how do we look at safety that rests within [the] community first,’’ said Will Simpson, director of violence reduction initiatives for Equal Justice USA.
“We began to frame the conversation about the ecosystem of public safety and we saw that although law enforcement isn’t at the center of this ecosystem, it is a part of it,’’ he added. “The conversation began to evolve. How are we producing safety together, safety that doesn’t always rely on law enforcement but leverages the expertise and wisdom of members of the community?”
Officials say the approach is yielding results. Prior to the pandemic, this city of about 310,000 people saw a sharp dip in violent crime rates. Homicides have decreased by more than 50% since 1990. In 2019, the city recorded 51 fatalities, down from 94 in 2016 and 72 in 2017.
Murder rates notched up slightly in 2020, when Newark recorded 53 homicides, and in 2021, when the number climbed to 57. So far this year, Newark has had 18 homicides, compared to 22 during the same period last year.
The new report, titled "The Future of Public Safety: Exploring the Power and Possibility of Newark’s Reimagined Public Safety Ecosystem," was commissioned by the mayor’s office, the street team and its partner, Equal Justice USA, a national group that promotes criminal justice reform and racial equity. It examined the ways in which Newark is rethinking traditional approaches to public safety and violence prevention. Last year, Baraka shifted 5% of the police department’s $229 million budget to community-led violence prevention initiatives.
“For a long time, the frame around safety was ‘more law enforcement, let's lock people up,’’’ said Simpson. “What we’ve seen here in the city of Newark is a reframing of the notion of safety. It’s not just more cops. Safety is understanding that folks in [the] community have access to employment, have access to healing services. Safety is knowing you have a roof to go home to at the end of the day.”
The street team is a key component of the initiative. Members of the team, all of whom have deep roots in Newark, are trained to employ intervention strategies to mediate ongoing disputes. Sometimes that means visiting victims in their hospital rooms to promote non-violence and discourage escalation.
“We’re trying to prevent retaliation,’’ said Solomon Middleton Williams, deputy director of the Newark Community Street Team. In one case, that meant mediating a dispute over 50 cents, he said.
The team also provides support for crime victims and offers safe passage to children going to school to reduce their likelihood of encountering violence en route.
Although city and state officials are deeply invested in the street team and other anti-violence initiatives in Newark, Williams says he’s tangled with them over funding. Debates over financial and policy matters play out during twice-monthly public safety roundtable meetings.
In 2021, the city established an Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, which coordinates all of the city’s anti-violence initiatives and serves as a liaison between law enforcement and the community. The city council allocated about $12 million to fund the agency, transferring the money from the police department.
Newark continues to grapple with the lingering trauma of the violent unrest more than 50 years ago, and the impact of racism. Annual median household income in the city during recent years was $37,476, compared with $85,245 for New Jersey as a whole. The city is about 49% Black and 37% Latino.
“The rebellion in ‘67 left the city of Newark like a wasteland,” Williams said. “Jobs left, homeownership left...everyone left us, the world left Newark.”
At its core, Simpson said, the city's public safety effort recognizes that “those who are most impacted by violence have the experience and the wisdom and the expertise to create the solutions.”
But, Simpson cautioned, it’s not a quick fix.
“I get it: when violence happens outside your door, you want that met immediately and you don’t want it to happen again,’’ he said. “But we are in process of [getting] at the root causes of why violence happens and when you can start to really understand that, you see that some of the solutions we need to employ are long term."
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty.
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