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How A Consent Decree Has Changed Policing In Newark, N.J.


The Justice Department announced a new investigation last week into the Louisville Metro Police Department, more than a year after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by three officers in her own home. The Justice Department also launched an investigation of the Minneapolis police department earlier last month. The end result of those inquiries could be something called a consent decree - that's a court-approved deal between the DOJ and local governments that includes an enforceable plan for reform. But how effective are those decrees? We're going to hear now from one of those cities that has experience with this. That's Newark, N.J. Lawrence Hamm is the chairman of the People's Organization for Progress there, and he's known as the godfather of police protests in Newark, and he joins me now. Hello.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The consent decree with Newark took place at the end of the Obama administration. It required a number of reforms - training on stops, searches and arrests, as well as bias-free policing. The city's public safety director said not one officer in the city fired his or her weapon while on duty last year in Newark. So I'm going to put it to you. Do you think the consent decree is working and helping in some way?

HAMM: Yes, I think it has had an impact. It has not eradicated police brutality, but it has certainly diminished the number of cases. Prior to the Justice Department investigation, we had families coming to our meetings on a regular basis talking about incidents of police brutality that involved their family members, some being the victims of excessive force, some being killed. But I have to say, even before the consent decree was enforced, because we had so many demonstrations, we interacted so often with the police that we could actually see a change in their behavior once it became public knowledge that the Newark Police Department was being investigated by the Justice Department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would like to ask you about why you think consent decrees work. Essentially, what they're doing is providing federal oversight to local police departments and provides a framework in which police departments have to be accountable. Newark's agreement with the Justice Department states that this month, May, is the earliest the city could end its consent decree. You are opposed to ending the federal oversight. Can you explain why?

HAMM: Well, the consent decrees are important. And the federal monitors are important because, in a way, they're like a big stop sign to the police department. It puts them on notice that they're being watched now, and their behavior is being assessed and evaluated. And the city has its reasons, I'm sure. One of those reasons is the actual cost. My understanding is that, at this point, the city of Newark has perhaps put out as much as $7.5 million in the effort to implement the consent decree. And for a cash-strapped municipality, that's a problem. So we're calling on the federal government to pay for these consent decrees. Because if you get to a point where the city just doesn't have the money, then that means the reform effort ends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's something else, as well. We've seen enforcement of consent decrees flip depending on the administration. I mean, the Trump administration was accused of not enforcing them specifically in Newark. Same happened under former President Bush. I mean, what do you think President Biden might do? Do you think he will be instituting more of these consent decrees and sort of robustly enforcing the ones that are already there?

HAMM: Absolutely. I think he is. And I think that's been clear. But I have to say this. While we support the consent decrees and the federal monitors as mechanisms to achieve change within police departments, we think that the most effective instrument in that regard is an organized and mobilized community. If you don't have that constant pressure, things can be implemented on paper, but the reality that people face in the street when they interact with the police can be something different.

Look at Newark. You know, you had an entire year where there wasn't a killing. Unfortunately, that streak came to an end on the very first day of this year. A Newark police detective shot and killed Carl Dorsey. And, you know, initially, the Newark police said that Dorsey was armed, but then a surveillance camera footage showing that Carl Dorsey was not armed. So this is why we say, even though the consent decrees and the federal monitors helped to bring about change, they don't eliminate police brutality. And that, I think, has been exhibited with the shooting of Mr. Dorsey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lawrence Hamm is the chairman of People's Organization for Progress in Newark, N.J. Thank you very much.

HAMM: Thank you. And have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.