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Newark leaders reckon with lack of diversity in city government

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Mayor Jerry Clifton speaks during a protest at Lumbrook Park on Saturday afternoon.

The growing national conversation around racism and police brutality has sparked similar discussion in the city of Newark.

“It is important to note that unfortunately in this country, we have been dealing with institutional racism,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said. “It’s built into our institutions. It’s not about laying blame at anyone’s feet. It’s about making proactive changes to make our institutional systems more just and more fair for all of us.”

City council spent part of its meeting last week talking about ways to increase the diversity of Newark’s government.

In its entire history, Newark has had only one black council member – the local civil rights leader George Wilson, who was elected in the 1950s.

“I, along with others in our community don’t believe the appointed and elected officials in Newark adequately reflect the diverse communities we are charged to represent,” Councilman Jason Lawhorn said. “With appointments that I have coming forward, I will make a serious effort to encourage and engage with a more diverse group of potential candidates to ensure all voices in our community feel they are heard and represented.”

He encouraged Mayor Jerry Clifton to use a forthcoming appointment to the planning commission to add some diversity to the commission.

“While I have proposed a candidate to the mayor and I believe he had some other options he was considering, frankly, all of those up for consideration were retired white men,” Lawhorn said. “I would propose that council support the mayor in identifying a minority, specifically a black man or woman, to be the at-large appointment for the planning commission. As we look to update our comprehensive development plan, I think this is an important and meaningful step forward in making policy changes that more adequately reflect the diverse community we are charged with representing.”

Clifton responded that he agreed with the sentiment but had already selected a nominee, who was later announced as former councilman Mark Morehead. However, there is now a second vacancy on the planning commission.

City Secretary Renee Bensley said she is working on a formal recommendation for how the city can diversify its boards and commissions, which are all appointed by council. The process will involve doing a demographics survey, reaching out to community leaders, talking about barriers to participation and setting up a formal application process.

“There’s not necessarily a system to connect folks to potential opportunities, and that leaves council members a lot of times looking through their networks and maybe missing folks who would do a good job on these committees,” Bensley said. “So by implementing a broader public application process, we can hopefully get some folks to the forefront that may not have known how to get involved in the first place.”

Councilman Stu Markham added that he would like to see more diversity among city employees and the Newark Police Department.

“We are not very diverse in the senior management, so I’d like to see more effort in that area,” Markham said. “Plus, hiring more minorities into the police force I think would be a worthy goal.”

Clifton said he’s in talks with a local artist who has expressed interest in painting a mural that highlights the diversity of Newark. The mural would be painted on the abutments of the CSX train tracks over Capitol Trail, near McDonald’s. The existing murals there are faded and worn.

“I think it’s a great idea, and its time is past due,” Clifton said.

Meanwhile, officials are looking at proposed police reforms and comparing the proposals to existing policies within the Newark Police Department. Specifically, the city is looking at the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which proposes eight polices to reduce use-of-force by police officers.

“Newark does have a relatively progressive police force, and they are already doing most of the items on the list,” City Manager Tom Coleman said.

Later, Newark Police released a document answering frequently asked questions about its policies.

“The tragedy in Minneapolis has impacted our community, our state and the entire country. The images on the video are deeply disturbing and difficult to watch. We know that the actions, and inaction, by the officers involved have cast a shadow of distrust over all officers nationwide,” the statement read. “We, the Newark Police Department, stand behind our mission: we exist to preserve life and property, to enforce the law, to solve community problems, and to protect the right of all citizens to live in a safe, peaceful environment. We are committed, as we always have been, to training our officers to strive to meet our mission and to fulfill that mission to the best of our ability.”

NPD recently began equipping officers with body cameras, and while the rollout was delayed by the pandemic, every officer will have one by early July, officials said.

The department already bans officers from using chokeholds in most situations.

“The use of a chokehold, whether applied by the hands, other body part or with a weapon, is prohibited by longstanding Newark Police Department policy unless deadly force is warranted, since death can occur from this procedure. These are not methods officers are trained on or authorized to perform,” the document states.

Officials added that officers are taught de-escalation tactics and are required to report each use of force likely to cause pain or injury and each time they draw and point a weapon at a citizen.

“Newark Police Department policy provides that any officer who observes another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances shall intercede, when feasible, to prevent the use of such excessive force, so long as doing so does not pose a safety risk,” the document states. “Officers shall immediately report these observations to a supervisor and document the observations prior to the end of shift. A violation of policy, including failure to intervene, will be investigated and an officer will be disciplined if it is found that policy is violated.”

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