When a former deputy mayor of Newark was indicted on corruption last week, the city's nationally known reformist mayor Cory Booker described his strategy to stop corruption from within.
"We don't wait for other people to investigate corruption in our city. We are aggressively working against it every single day," said Booker, tasked with the unenviable job of revitalizing a city that for decades has struggled against profound poverty, drugs and education gaps.
But Mayor Booker hasn't applied that approach to pursue the corruption infesting the Newark Police Department. Booker's "zero tolerance for corruption," as he put it in a press statement, should apply to lawless officers running rampant in the city as well as administration appointees on the take.
Last week's headlines drove home the point that the police, too, need policing. In New York, a judge gave "tough-on-crime" former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik a four-year prison sentence. In Newark, the FBI indicted an officer who allegedly had sex with a minor in the precinct on numerous occasions.
Last week, the ACLU of New Jersey filed yet another lawsuit against the city -- our third in three years -- alleging systemic abuse in the Newark Police.
Our client, Diana Taylor, was walking home when two police officers stopped her. They demanded her identification. She gave her legal name -- Christopher Moore.
"You're right -- I owe you 10 dollars," one officer told the other, "It is a man."
She was stopped, Taylor realized, to settle a dehumanizing bet about her gender. That was only the beginning of her nightmare.
The officers went on to call Taylor hateful and discriminatory names and asked crude questions about her sex life. Then, without justification, they handcuffed and arrested her, insulting her the entire time.
Once at the precinct, a clerk scrambled to find something to justify the arrest, but only Taylor's unblemished record came up. The officers insisted on driving her home, using the opportunity to threaten to sic local gang members on Taylor if she dared file an internal affairs complaint.
Undeterred, Taylor proceeded with Internal Affairs. The abuse that followed climbed up the chain of command. It took countless calls before someone took down the incident, and they still didn't take her seriously. Rather, they dismissed her complaints without even interviewing available witnesses.
We hope our lawsuit on behalf of Taylor will serve as a wake-up call to Booker, who gave the Newark Police Department the star treatment in his recent State of the City address, touting a state-of-the-art precinct in the South Ward. But a new building is only as good as the professionalism of the officers in it.
Newark's police have not consistently demonstrated professionalism. In addition to the Taylor case, the ACLU of New Jersey currently represents teenagers the Newark Police illegally searched while the officers' guns were drawn, and a newspaper editor taken into custody for declining to relinquish the newspaper's copies of photos taken of a crime scene.
These kinds of problems are not new here. The ACLU of New Jersey, founded 50 years ago, was in its infancy when anger over widespread injustice and unchecked police brutality set the city ablaze in 1967. After citizens endured police officers' beatings, intimidation and racial slurs, ACLU of New Jersey volunteers combed the streets cataloging abuses. The Newark Police at the time compiled dossiers on civil rights leaders, but they didn't arrest officers who had committed crimes against residents.
Ever since, we've been fighting for reforms, and it's taking much longer than we ever imagined.
Booker knows his police force faces ongoing problems, but he hasn't taken it seriously enough to enact reforms recommended to him by experts he commissioned to conduct an in-depth review of Newark police operations. The review found that Newark Police lacked tools and practices that have improved other departments' training of officers, record-keeping, control over officer integrity, and other cornerstones of police work.
Yet, Booker hasn't even capitalized on opportunities to adopt the most basic reforms. For example, none of Newark's 40 new otherwise state-of-the-art cruisers unveiled last month included dashboard cameras that record arrests and police interaction with residents, a recognized benchmark for accountability.
In Newark, Booker alone has authority to make the most important change: establishing an independent monitor armed with an all-access pass to check the city's police force. The position would protect both citizens and conscientious officers, who make up the majority of police departments, but whose reputations are jeopardized when leadership fails to properly address officer misconduct. As the State Police can attest, an independent monitor benefits both officers and citizens alike -- but it took federal intervention for troopers to realize it.
If Booker means business on corruption, then he can start by taking criminal acts by police as seriously as he does criminal acts by citizens. Otherwise, he will lose the luxury of making that decision himself and risk soiling his reputation -- and that of the Newark Police.