Should Newark defund its police department?

Read this op-ed as it originally appeared on June 30, 2020.

By Anibal Ramos Jr.

Over the last few weeks, my City Council office has received numerous calls and emails asking me to “defund the police.”

This call to action is in response to incidents of police brutality, such as the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other incidents caught on camera over the past decade where police abuse is apparent. In response, the Minneapolis City Council recently sponsored a resolution dismantling its police department.

While the anger and frustration stemming from these visible acts of abuse and brutality is warranted, what isn’t clear is what actions should be taken to improve police and community relations. Even many of those who are calling to defund the police acknowledge that every community is different and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Mayor Ras Baraka most recently presented an ordinance to the City Council asking to ban racist, white supremacist and other hate groups, something that we all agree with. However, the ordinance calls for a minimum 5% reduction in the city’s Public Safety Department budget, a cut of just under $12 million.

Our Public Safety Department, which is made up of police and fire divisions, is the largest in the state and provides a wide range of different services to the community. The reality is that most police budgets are 90% personnel costs, so any reshifting of funds will entail cutting police personnel.

The hiring of police officers is recognized as a sign of investment in cities across America. Mayor Baraka and the Newark Council have proudly celebrated the hiring of an additional 500 officers in the last four years, opening up additional police precincts across the city.

With all the recent investment in building up our police division and progress made in a department that is operating under a federal consent order, is defunding the right thing to do in the City of Newark?

It is important to understand what our police division actually does. The reality is that modern-day police officers do more than just traditional law enforcement work.

Police respond to a wide range of different complaints from homelessness to mental health issues and non-emergency calls concerning noise, cars double-parked and blocking driveways. Police respond to animal control complaints, code enforcement and domestic violence complaints.

Rethinking police will require us to look at how our police division is structured and assess what is it that the community expects from them. Residents in our city call 911 (emergency) and 973-733-6000 (non-emergency) more than any other city number to access services.

Reduction in funding for organizations and state and federal agencies responding to child abuse allegations, homelessness complaints and other important local challenges have placed the police in an important position where they respond to these non-emergency complaints.

Police response time to complaints is one of the biggest expectations that our residents have. Do residents want closed police precincts and firehouses? Who will determine the optimal size of your police force? Are we jeopardizing years of progress made in reducing violence in our city?

Making our police division more responsive to community needs doesn’t necessarily mean diverting resources away from public safety. We can agree that having access to social workers on call to respond to homelessness and other non emergency issues is important. I am glad to see that the recent Presidential Executive Order, which doesn’t go far enough on reform, will at least offer incentives for local departments and municipalities to hire social workers.

We also need to create a non-emergency call center that can effectively refer calls from residents 24/ 7 to various city departments to respond to various issues. That will require city departments such as code enforcement, animal control and health, to name a few, must be accessible during off hours.

The state and the Police Training Commission need to re-evaluate how it trains police officers. The average police academy class is about six months and the training offered is important, but is similar at least in the onset to a military boot camp.

The renewed focus needs to be placed on de-escalation techniques and training officers to be more guardians as opposed to warriors. Officer training should include recognizing unconscious and implicit racial bias. I believe there is value in having residents and other stakeholders take part in evaluating police functions and provide feedback and guidance on how it can be more responsive to community needs.

Ultimately, the function of any police department is to protect and serve. The recommendations I have outlined are additional suggestions that can help our Public Safety Department and Police Division to continue to protect our communities with the diligence, care and integrity that we all deserve.

Anibal Ramos Jr. has represented the North Ward on the Newark Municipal Council since 2006.

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