NEWARK, NJ — Newark City Council advanced legislation on Wednesday that takes a hard-line against racism and slashes the police division’s budget, redirecting up to $15 million toward community-based anti-violence efforts. 

The ordinance, which was introduced by Mayor Ras Baraka on Friday, received just one abstention from Councilmember at Large Carlos Gonzalez among the nine-member body. As cries for municipalities to defund, dismantle or abolish police departments reverberate across the country and on social media, this local law is one of the first in New Jersey to try to meet organizers’ demands. 

Using 5 to 7% of the Pubic Safety Department's $229 million budget, the ordinance will:

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  • Establish an Office of Violence Prevention, which will manage policy and programs to advance anti-violence initiatives.
  • Develop community-based anti-violence initiatives.
  •  Make racist acts an automatically fireable offense for city employees.
  • Declare all hate groups and white supremacist organizations terrorists, outlaw them in the city and enter them into an official database.
  • Close the 1st Precinct, the site of the 1967 Newark uprisings, to establish a museum showcasing the progress of the city’s police force over the past six decades. 

Right now, Newark is embroiled in a state Supreme Court battle with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No.12 for the right of its Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate public complaints against police with subpoena power. The CCRB was established in 2016 after a 2014 federal report determined Newark Police Department had a pattern of civil rights violations. 

The same year, the city also entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ's investigation also resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor to help undo the damage wrought by unconstitutional policing and internal failure to enforce officer accountability. 

While it’s unclear whether the FOP will challenge this ordinance as well, Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose expressed support for Baraka’s measures on Wednesday, saying alternative policing is the future. 

“Police also provide services that are social in nature, like our Hope One Newark mobile unit, which provides mental health screenings and assistance to the homeless and to those who desire drug rehabilitation services. These types of services reduce crime,” he added.

Some local activists, however, feel the ordinance isn’t going far enough to meaningfully reduce the city’s police budget, which is one of the top-three biggest expenditures alongside pension payments and health care. The overall Public Safety budget is $229 million, a $24 million increase from 2019 that included an 11% increase for police pensions and the hiring of 200 additional officers. 

Newark’s population is small compared to most major cities, about 282,000. By contrast, Minneapolis, which has a population of 425,403, allotted $193.3 million to its police department this year. New Orleans spent about $175 million and has 391,000 residents. 

Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, said what Newark needs is real change from the bottom up. He pointed to the $120 million loan the city borrowed from Essex County to afford its lead line service replacement program, which he feels could have been at least partially covered if it weren’t for overspending on the police division. 

“All of our programs are so underfunded. For me, this ordinance is, ‘Hey, I’m doing the right thing, look, we’re going to ban white supremacy because hate groups in Newark are so outrageous,” Diaz said.  “This is not real progress, what they’re doing in Minneapolis in defunding and dismantling the police department, that’s real progress. That is a radical solution. So, for me, it’s like, this is your progressive, radical mayor?”

Prior to the international outcry over the officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose city council pledged last week to dismantle their police department, the police department in Camden, New Jersey experienced the same overhaul in 2012. Since dissolving and completely replacing its police department with a focus on community policing, the city’s crime rate has dropped by half

Baraka told TAPinto Newark on Monday that he doesn’t support the full abolition or dismantling of NPD, saying that the concept is coming from a privileged place. In a high-crime city like Newark, he said, the police are necessary for public safety, and the city will continue working with its federal monitor to continue shaping the force into compassionate, community-based support. 

“I wish the people who say that were there when my sister was shot and killed,” Baraka said of his late sister, Shani Baraka, who was killed in her sister's Piscataway home in 2003 as a result of domestic violence. “Those people should come to Newark and see what it’s like without police. It’s not like Maplewood without police. As for the budget, I agree that it’s too big, I want to see more money go to other things like the Shani Baraka Center.”

Shaka Zulu, chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, echoed Baraka’s sentiments. He said that a Newark, or a United States, without police wouldn’t be possible, but for different reasons, citing the country’s foundations of organized, militant violence as an impediment to abolishing policing as it exists. 

“The liberals and so-called thinkers think that abolishing the police is a good thing, but it’s not realistic. Nowhere in history has a ruling class as violent, as racist and as vicious as this empire abolished its own armed forces,” Zulu said. “In theory, it’s a good exercise of dialectics, but in practice, it doesn't make sense.”