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Councilwoman proposes task force to rethink policing in Newark

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Councilwoman Jen Wallace is proposing a citizen task force to rethink how Newark approaches policing

Amid a national conversation about racism and the role of policing, a Newark councilwoman is calling for a citizen task force to study ways to rethink policing in Newark.

“The public definitely should have more of a say what police look like in our city,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said Monday.

Wallace’s comments were prompted by protests across the country, including several here in Newark, that were prompted by the death of George Floyd, who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest. Many of the protesters have decried systemic racism in America and advanced the idea of “defunding” the police, which essentially means diverting some funding from police departments to social services and other organizations.

Though Wallace didn’t use that terminology, she essentially proposed the same concept: shifting some functions away from the Newark Police Department.

She noted that parking enforcement used to fall under NPD’s jurisdiction. In 2015, parking enforcement officers – who were unarmed civilians, not sworn police officers with arrest powers – were moved to the planning department, rebranded as “parking ambassadors” and given a friendlier-looking uniform.

“I think it’s possible that there are other functions of the city that do not require individuals with a weapon and trained the way police are trained to respond,” she said.

She mentioned dealing with homeless people and breaking up student parties as things to consider shifting away from the police department.

“I don’t know that we need an armed individual to do that, but I think the first thing that needs to happen is for there to be a larger community discussion around that,” she said.

Wallace, who is retiring from council when her term ends in August, said she hopes her colleagues keep the discussion going long-term. She urged the city to create a committee including the ACLU, NAACP, faith-based groups and other stakeholders in the community.

“Ultimately, the residents are the ones who pay the bills here, and they should have a say in what our entire budget looks like, but especially in regards to the police budget,” she said.

This year’s budget includes $15.7 million for the NPD, which accounts for 16 percent of the total budget and is the city’s largest expense outside of utility purchases. The department has 72 sworn officers, 12 emergency dispatchers and six other civilian employees.

None of Wallace’s colleagues on council addressed her proposal Monday, which she made during a portion of the meeting when council members are given a few minutes to speak about whatever is on their minds. However, she did get support from resident Sam Van Horne, who addressed council later in the meeting.

“Are we more interested in policing our citizens rather than supporting the development of our community? Why are we not investing more money in support for our programs for youth and seniors, health care and housing?” Van Horne said.

He said that some other cities are looking at ways to reallocate more resources to community support programs, and Newark should do the same.

“With robust investment, other community agencies can work with our neighbors and provide them with support without placing minority residents at risk of disparate outcomes due to contact with the police,” Van Horne said.

An NPD spokesman declined to comment on Wallace’s proposal.

Wallace also called for the creation of a diversity, inclusion and equity committee that would examine Newark’s laws, policies and procedures to determine if changes are needed to be more sensitive to issues surrounding race, LGBTQ issues, transgender rights and disabled rights.

“What exists in our code and our policies and procedures and practices that we might not really be aware of, but that are discriminatory?” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether we think it’s that way, it matters if these groups or individuals perceive it to be that way.”

She noted that next week, council will discuss ways to diversify the city’s boards and commissions but said Newark needs to do more to “combat some of the ills that are built into our very system of government.”

“It might appear that we do not have the problems that other cities have, but I guarantee you that there are people out there who don’t see it that way,” Wallace said. “It’s not a judgment, it’s just that inherently, many of our institutions have it built into it. We have to do our best to address it and remedy systemic racism.”

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