Newark police want to engage with youth again as COVID-19 declines
When Myrina, 8, thinks of cops, she recalls news stories about police shootings.
“Well I saw this on the news: some police never put their guns down,” she said Thursday while playing on a jungle gym at Belmont Runyon Elementary School in Newark.
She and her family were at the school for a barbecue organized by the Newark Police Divison and other law enforcement agencies, where a new initiative was announced to build trust between youth and cops.
It’s starting with help from the Newark Police Foundation, a nonprofit that provides funds for the state’s largest municipal police department to support community policing strategies, technology and training.
Each of Newark’s seven police precincts will be entered into a “Cops and Kids Community Policing Contest” to come up with the best youth engagement initiative. The proposals will be judged by the nonprofit and Newark community on effectiveness, sustainability and creativity. The winning initiative will be awarded a grant from the foundation later this year.
Christopher Porrino, New Jersey’s former state Attorney General, heads the nonprofit’s board. He told NJ Advance Media that legislation around police transparency helps build trust, but cops themselves also play a part in that equation.
“There’s lots of very smart lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Trenton who are looking to change the law,” Porrino said. “That’s great and that’s fine. That creates a better environment for trust. But you can’t create trust unless you’re out face-to-face.”
The Newark Police Foundation was created in 2006 and was active for about seven years, investing millions of dollars into crime reduction projects in Newark like ShotSpotter sensors and Crime Stoppers tip hotlines. The nonprofit was revived about six months ago after it was dormant since 2013, Porrino said.
The foundation is looking to raise up to $1 million for the initiative, Porrino said. The funding comes a year after the city committed to diverting $11 million from the public safety department to more social services programs too.
The state Attorney General’s Office on Thursday separately announced $165,000 in grant funding for community-based policing initiatives that focus on youth. The funding hasn’t been allocated to Newark and proposals will be reviewed from law enforcement agencies statewide.
“That’s the foundation of public safety: it’s public trust,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in Newark. “Just think about it. If you trust your cops - if you have that relationship - you won’t be afraid to go to them when you’re in harm’s way. ... You won’t be fearful to go to them to report a crime.”
Newark’s police department entered into a list of reforms called a consent decree about five years ago after the U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers. Creating opportunities for positive interactions with youth was one of the reforms Newark police are required to do under the consent decree.
“People really should look to Newark as a model of what a police department and a city and a community can accomplish in the area of police reform,” said acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig.
Perceptions of Newark police are changing.
Two days before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the consent decree’s monitoring team began conducting a survey of Newark residents about their perceptions and interactions with cops. Thirty-seven percent of respondents answered that they’ve never had a positive experience with Newark police, which was a decrease from 83% in 2018, according to a report from the consent decree’s federal monitor.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka noted that there’s still work to be done. But he hopes the new competition among precincts will spur more Newark children to become police officers in their own city.
“I’m sure the precincts will come up with creative and innovative ways to battle one another in a very positive way to create opportunities where young people can once again - or initially begin - to look at police departments or police officers as something that they want to do or be when they grow up,” said Baraka.
Myrina said she would consider becoming a police officer one day. Another student, 15-year-old Edith Chukwuelue, wouldn’t rule out becoming a cop one day and doesn’t think being an officer is too hard of a job.
“Only if a citizen refuses to cooperate, then yeah, it’s going to be hard,” said Chukwuelue, adding that when she thinks of police the words “safety” and “protection” come to mind.
Prior to the pandemic, community service officers were able to easily engage with young people, said Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara. Now that coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths are steadily decreasing in New Jersey, police can bring new energy to that effort.
O’Hara wants young Newarkers to “see that uniform of the Newark police and they feel proud, they feel safe. They know their local community service officer. We want them to have all those types of feelings.”