Newark's New Mayor Proves His Crime-Fighting Powers Early
Across the Hudson River in Newark, N.J., the murder rate is down, but the new mayor there says that's just a small step in a very long effort to make Newark a safer place to live.
Mayor Ras Baraka took office this past July. NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with him about the unconventional tactics he's using to heal a city he says is in a state of emergency, but he makes it clear that Newark "does not have a monopoly on this issue."
"I think that every major city in America is struggling to get crime under control," Baraka says. "We are not just targeting the 1 percent of folks that are doing the most violent crimes. What we want to do is attack the area, the place that helps become incubator for crime."
In October, less than six months in office, Baraka did something fairly unusual. He reached out to gang members in Newark and had a meeting with them. Many of these gang members had been responsible for much of the violence in Newark. The meeting was held at Bethany Baptist Church, a place he calls neutral and that "assessed the kind of cultural tone that, if you want help, there's help available."
The response included activists, ministers and gang members, as well as victims of violence, including a father who lost his son, a pizza delivery boy in the city of Newark who was robbed and killed.
"He spoke to them very frankly about losing his child and what it meant and how it felt to him and the kind of havoc that they're wreaking on people's neighborhoods and families," he says.
Though much of what was said by the gang members in attendance was said in confidence, Baraka says most expressed the need for meaningful employment. He says despite prevailing opinions, people don't come to the mayor and ask for money or welfare — they say they need a job.
"They understand they got involved in some of these things at a very young age. And they made criminal life a career," he says. "They're trying to break that cycle, and unfortunately, they can't break it on their own."
Just weeks after that meeting, there was a spike in violent crime that Baraka described as a state of emergency, but he still feels they are making inroads.
"I wish there was one meeting that we could have and make violence go away. We could take that on the road," he says. "Ultimately, even though we have reduced murders in the city 30 percent, carjackings 50 percent ... We still are not out of the woods."
"Anytime you have anywhere between 80 to 100 black and Latino boys being killed in a community by homicide, then it's important for people to look at that as an epidemic," he says.
Policing The Police
This past summer, the Justice Department wrapped up a three-year investigation of the Newark Police Department and found a pattern of what they called unjustified and excessive force. This comes at a time when there is a national debate happening about police, their conduct and the relationship they have with the communities they serve.
Baraka says in response to the investigation they've moved internal affairs into City Hall, game them longer hours and already have put more than 90 percent of Newark police in re-training. They are also getting ready to establish a civilian review board.
"We welcome the kind of reforms that the Department of Justice said needs to happen here in the city of Newark around the police department, around the policing in the city," he says. "We believe that a police department that's more efficient, less corrupt, will have a better agency that's able to solve the crimes in our city and to help us reduce violence in the community."
In neighboring New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is in a tense standoff with police over the issue of aggressive police tactics and in the wake of the recent murder of two police officers. Baraka says that the mayor was unfairly attached to the "heinous and brutal" crime.
"I think some people take offense to people saying black lives matter," he says. "It doesn't mean that you have no respect for other people's life. What it means is that you want black people to have justice in the community just like everybody else. And I think what Mayor de Blasio did was right that he spoke out against the violence committed against those police officers — and he should have."
Though Baraka has been able to decrease certain violent crimes rates, he's not hailing that as a victory quite yet. He says what he would like is for people in the neighborhoods to feel safe and that the police are doing their jobs.
Two areas they are focusing on in Newark are lower Clinton Hill and the lower West Ward. Baraka says that as the year moves on they are going to increase the intensity of work that's going on in those two neighborhoods.
"It doesn't mean that all crime in the neighborhood is going to disappear," he says. "What it does mean, however, is that we've got a handle over what's happening in that community. And if people report to us that they feel safer six months later than they did when we first started, then I would look at that as a victory."
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