A community-based public safety approach is helping transform this N.J. city

Newark — a metropolis with more than 300,000 majority Black and brown residents — is in the midst of transformational change with regard to public safety, according to a new report released this month, thanks in large part to a community-centered ecosystem approach that prioritizes healing trauma, not solely penalizing those who caused it.

Video Transcript

AQEELA SHERRILLS: We got to have investment in terms of re-imagining public safety. This ecosystem that we talk about is multiple agencies working together all with the same focus, which is to reduce violence and crime in our respective community, and then provide real healing and recovery services to those who have been harmed.


My name is Aqeela Sherrills. I am the Executive Director of the Community-based Public Safety Collective and the Founder and President and Board Chair of the Newark Community Street Team. I'd like to describe Newark, as we call it, the new Ark of the Covenant, the new Salem.

Newark is a city of about 300,000 people, one of the oldest cities in the union in this country, and the most passionate people that you want to meet. I like to say that Newark is Chocolate City, rich with culture. I think that one of the things that's happening in Newark, we're seeing a real paradigm, our narrative shift around this idea that law enforcement exists as this ubiquitous agency that is responsible for all of safety and community.

In 2017, we did a study in partnership with the health department, this group that the mayor launched called the Safer Newark Council, and discovered that 62% of the homicides in the city started out as interpersonal conflicts or domestic disputes. So a lot of what we know as public safety is rooted in trauma.

The data says that only 1% of the population is producing 80% to 90% of the harm, that 38% of 911 calls are for non-serious, non-emergency requests. And so it makes a powerful case for community to be a constituency in this conversation in terms of safety. And so the development of community violence intervention, or what we call community-based public safety, has been really important in the city of Newark as a complementary strategy to our policing.

And these entities working together has produced some really phenomenal results. Newark is no longer on the top 10 most violent city list, where it had a coveted position for almost 50 consecutive years. We have better relationships between community and law enforcement. As you know, about seven or eight years ago, the city was put under a consent decree because of the excessive force issues that were happening in our PD. And I think that today there's still a lot of work that has to be done, but there's a lot of shifting changes that have been made.

- Newark's community based approach to violence intervention over the last eight years has led to a significant decline in serious crime. That's according to a new report.

JAMILA HODGE: So my name is Jamila Hodge and I'm the Executive Director of Equal Justice USA. When I think about public safety, it's a public that actually centers the community and those most impacted by violence, and safety that is more than just the absence of violence. One real big goal of this report is just to get the word out.

So especially now, at a time when violence is top of mind, it's certainly getting so much media attention. We're seeing children killed behind gun violence. We know gun violence is on the rise and people are looking for answers. And right now, we're defaulting to the same old, same old. Violence is up, gun violence is increasing, we need more police. But we know that's not working.

So what we haven't had are concrete examples to point to say, oh no. This is a different way that can work, and so that's one goal of the report is to elevate what's happening in Newark. I mean, I think one of the biggest parts of the problem in our system today is we've asked police to handle everything.

When you call 911 for any and everything, when so much of what comes into the system, and I saw this as a line prosecutor, they're public health issues. They are poverty issues. These are not issues that police can address. They're responding after the fact, and often, the way the system responds makes the problems worse. It doesn't make them better.

But one of the pieces of infrastructure that now exists in Newark is the Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, which was funded by taking 5% out of the public safety budget, which was between 11 and $12 million, that now there's an office that their job is to fund these community violence intervention strategies And to help make sure there's resources coming in to support this new approach.

We run a training program, Trauma to Trust, that brings police officers and community members together to learn about trauma. So to really help open some of that communication. So while, yes, we want to build towards this vision where we actually have solutions rooted in a system other than one that was founded on racial oppression, solutions that are rooted in healing, rooted in repair, there's just a recognition that the reality is it's a system we're going to have to continue to contend with as we build.