Policing the Police, a documentary from the PBS Frontline series, questions what it would take to change a troubled police department into one the community trusts. Professor Jelani Cobb, the voice behind “Policing” rides with the Newark, New Jersey Police Gang Unit to view the job from the officers’ perspective.
Newark, a city that has been perpetually plagued with violence, was also recently ordered by the Department of Justice to make reforms based on multiple complaints of police brutality and harassment. The largest city in New Jersey, Newark has had high crime and consistently high unemployment rates for years. In 2014, the Newark Police Department was investigated by the D.O.J, and in a 49-page report, it was stated that there were patterns and practices of constitutional violations in their stop and arrest procedures, the response to citizens’ first amendment rights, and use of force and theft by officers. The police department also had major problems with accountability. Between the years of 2007 to 2012 hundreds of excessive force complaints were filed with the Internal Affairs department and all were dismissed except one.
Newark residents were looking for change.
The documentary starts soon after the election of a new mayor, who was very familiar with activism against police brutality. Mayor Baraka had a variety of challenges in the police department: from the outdated and understaffed 911 center that still used a physical runner to dispatch, to police officers’ slow response to crimes happening nearby, to the lack of investigative intelligence used to arrest suspects. The gang unit, a predominately black and brown group of officers, has the duty of getting the guns off of the street. The streets were patrolled at night in SUVs and the cops would make the determination as to who was stopped and frisked. It happened multiple times while Cobb was on the ride-alongs, including moments where excessive force was used. There was no evidence used, just their ‘gut’. Often the ones who ran or “looked” suspicious was surrounded, cuffed, and searched.
A disturbing example of this was a young man walking down the street with his friend. When he saw the group of cops approaching him he said “Don’t touch me, brother. Don’t touch me.”
An officer who later stated that he was fearful that the young man was armed, grabbed him and violently threw him to the ground. Other officers joined him and he was “cuffed for safety”. Once the officers searched him and found him to be clear of drugs and weapons, he was told his attitude was hostile based on the fact that he didn’t want to be touched. The man who was cuffed was clearly upset, and stated that all they had to do was ask him why he was in that area and he would have told them he was on his way home. He felt stereotyped and targeted. He was released, but his friend was arrested for possession. Later, Cobb had the gang unit supervisor review the tape and while he looked visibly shaken as he was watching the interaction between the citizen and his officers he would only say that “it looked like a bad stop by perception only” and blamed errors on the citizen’s lack of compliance and the stress officers were under. Two members of the gang unit featured in the documentary were later disciplined for excessive force and sexual coercion.
While the officers viewed the tactics they used as necessary to fight crime, the citizens of Newark took to council meetings to voice their concerns. Eventually, changes were made to include body cameras, training, officer misconduct punishment, and civilian oversight. The gang unit was disbanded and an intelligence unit was created to work with the community to fight crime.
“Policing” gave the viewers visual examples of the D.O.J. report findings. The failure to have a reasonable suspicion to justify a stop required by NPD was violated. The lack of NPD transparency was clear when Cobb was refused reports about the incidents he recorded for the documentary. The D.O.J. reported that the community didn’t trust the NPD because of the way they were treated, therefore making them less effective. While changes were definitely made to improve the community, there is much work to be done to fix the way the officers view the people they are sworn to serve.