Mayor Ras Baraka, of Newark, N.J., and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, kicked off the 11th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City Thursday — speaking openly about how they juggle interests of police and the public in their cities.
The two-day symposium, ‘Making Room for Justice: Crime, Public Safety & the Choices Ahead for Americans,’ is sponsored by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), which also publishes The Crime Report. Follow the conference on Twitter using the hashtag #CrimeInAmerica
For Baraka and Freeman-Wilson, who lead two small cities that have struggled with high crime rates and extreme poverty, the solution to fighting crime is to focus on problems at the block level.
The mayors touched on a number of pressing criminal justice topics including police unions, body cameras, civilian oversight boards, drug legalization, the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” sentencing reform and how presidential candidates have approached issues of criminal justice. But the over-arching theme of their discussion was their focused approach to combating crime: bringing police and community together on the street.
Trust, they say, is the best way to bring crime down.
Baraka started Newark’s first ever Civilian Complaint Review Board, started civilian CompStat meetings and initiated a program called “Occupy the Block,” which brings city officials and civilians together to disrupt criminal activities in high-crime areas.
“When people believe that police officers are there as an appendage of the community and not there to occupy the community, then I think it will change a lot of the trajectory of the ways things are going in these neighborhoods,” Baraka said.
“We have to navigate between trying to make the community safe and make sure that there’s constitutional policing at the same time,” he added.
Freeman-Wilson, the first African-American female mayor in the state of Indiana who serves as chair of the U.S. Mayors Conference Committee on Community Policing, started “Gary for Life,” a program aimed at offering employment and housing opportunities to known violent offenders in order to help reduce crime. She’s also organized the 5x5x5 Neighborhood Revitalization Cleanup program to help bring city officials and the public together in high-crime areas.
“Yes, we need police, yes we want them in our community, but the solution is not more officers, it’s more community involvement,” Freeman-Wilson said.
It hasn’t been easy, they say. Both cities are notorious for their high-crime rates and in recent years have been included on lists of cities with the highest crimes rates.
Each spoke about changing the culture of police departments.
“[Police] believe — some of them, not all of them – believe that you can still arrest your way out of the problem,” Freeman-Wilson said. “The overwhelming majority of folk, particularly those who are charged with non-violent crimes, need a different form of criminal justice.”
One big challenge, they said, are policies that do not require police officers to live within their cities and so a majority of officers do not live within city limits. Baraka said police are only required to live in the city for a year while training at the academy, which is something he said he wishes he could change but a bill to require police officers to live in Newark was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
And how about that so-called “Ferguson Effect”? Baraka did not hold back.
“I think its completely ridiculous,” Baraka said. “Just to be frank, I really think that that is a racist response to what’s happening in these communities.”
Adam Wisnieski is a Hartford-based freelance reporter, and a contributing editor of The Crime Report. You can follow him on Twitter @adamthewiz. He welcomes comments from readers.