Putting Public Safety in Public Hands: The Newark Model
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Move money and power from police to communities and invest in local control. In the face of ongoing police brutality against African Americans and the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on people of color, the nation has reached a tipping point in relation to racism, policing and public health. The Newark Community Street team in Newark, New Jersey serves as a viable model for realizing many of the demands of advocacy groups such as the Movement for Black Lives, Reclaim the Block, and Black Lives Matter. In February, Laura went to Newark to report on how the Street Team leverages community relationships to prevent violence, address abuse and transform trauma into power. This episode offers a timely glimpse of what it looks like when more responsibility for public safety is put in public hands.
Photo Credit: Ron Holtz Photography
Aqeela Sherrills (00:01):
Safety is about quality of life. We say that safety is not only the absence of violence, it’s the presence of well being and the infrastructure to support poor people in their respective healing journey.
Patrice Walker (00:12):
In order to get people’s trust, you have to let them know or let them see that you care about them.
Breaunna McCray (00:18):
Our street team is more like a family to me. We’re really trying to make a difference in our community.
Dax-Devlon Ross (00:25):
The only yeah people of Newark are going to get justice is if they have a voice.
Laura Flanders (01:15):
Public safety, how do you define it? And what role do you see for the public in stopping violence, shaping the economy of a place, and transforming trauma into public health? The people of the South Ward of Newark, New Jersey have seen the worst. Over-policing, under-representation, lack of opportunity. Sometimes around here the sound of police sirens seems never to stop. If this place, the South Ward, is to feel safe to the people who live here, what’s that going to take?
Laura Flanders (01:45):
In February 2020, I spent much of the month with the members of the Newark Community Street Team. An organization whose model of public engagement seems all the more relevant in the face of ongoing police brutality and urgent demand for a new approach.
Speaker 5 (01:45):
What do we want?
Speaker 5 (01:45):
When do we want it?
Laura Flanders (01:45):
Daamin Durden is the director of operations for the Newark Community Street Team. He gave me a tour of his neighborhood highlighting the socioeconomic struggles he grew up with.
Laura Flanders (02:21):
Do you want to describe a little bit of what we’re driving through, Daamin?
Daamin Durden (02:27):
So I actually used to live on the corner here. I remember maybe last year a young man was killed right there and this is right down from the brand new precinct mind you. So I used to live here on the second floor.
Laura Flanders (02:43):
What are the options for a young person growing up around here?
Daamin Durden (02:48):
There is not many options that they have outside of joining those street organizations. It’s kind of like inevitable for them.
Laura Flanders (03:01):
And how do you explain that? What do you think happened here?
Daamin Durden (03:04):
I think much of the economic structure and the tax base left to go somewhere else. So for 60 years, there was just no development taking place.
Laura Flanders (03:26):
Next I sat down with Breaunna McCray. A coordinator for the Newark Community Street Team’s safe passage program to talk about her path from growing up in Newark’s South Ward to working for the team today.
Laura Flanders (03:41):
Tell me about growing up. Tell me some of the fabulous things about it, and then some of the more difficult things.
Breaunna McCray (03:45):
My childhood in Newark, I used to go to the skating ring, the movies. We had a good childhood. We would go to parties and have fun. There might be a fight, but nobody’s dying. Now it’s different, way different.
Laura Flanders (03:58):
What are the kids that age going through now?
Breaunna McCray (04:01):
Selling drugs, killing people, shootings every day.
Laura Flanders (04:07):
What’s that about?
Breaunna McCray (04:09):
Youth organizations just going at it with another youth organization.
Laura Flanders (04:13):
Some people would call them gangs.
Breaunna McCray (04:14):
Laura Flanders (04:15):
You don’t use that word.
Breaunna McCray (04:16):
No. I use youth organizations. When they say gangs, they make it seem like it’s bad, diverse. Sometimes it is, but not all the time.
Laura Flanders (04:29):
You were in one of those organizations.
Breaunna McCray (04:30):
Yes, I was. As growing up. Yeah, I was 15.
Laura Flanders (04:35):
What did it give you that you were looking for?
Breaunna McCray (04:37):
It gave me love. I thought it’s love. Love and just somebody being there for you.
Malik Latimore (04:49):
I’m Malik Latimore, a resident, a lifelong resident of Newark, New Jersey, 50 years old, formerly incarcerated. My last incarceration, I did 15 years, 14 1/2 years in prison. When I initially came home as a youth, I reached out to individuals for employment. And it was like, you ass felon. No, no, you did time. You don’t have no work experience. You don’t have a work history. You don’t have this, that. And it was like really a push back to the streets. Every avenue I went, it seemed there was a barrier. And you know the only thing that was inviting, was unfortunately was crime.
Breaunna McCray (05:32):
I don’t wish I wasn’t in a organization, but sometimes I wish I could change a little of how I went about it because I dealt with a lot of things. A lot of things.
Laura Flanders (05:40):
Breaunna McCray (05:41):
Almost lost my life.
Laura Flanders (05:43):
Talk about that.
Breaunna McCray (05:44):
I was outside. It was the summertime. It was like a cookout/block party type thing. We were chilling. A car ride up. I seen a guy run out the backyard and he started shooting towards where I’m at. He wasn’t shooting for me, but the person that I was sitting next to, he was shooting at them. The first gun shot went off. It hit me. I fell. Minutes later, more gunshots went off and it hit him, but they continue to hit him. Me, I played dead. And then I’m like, “Breaunna, look over.” I looked over at my best friend. He was dying. I lost a lot of blood. My lungs collapsed. I had to learn how to walk again.
Laura Flanders (06:31):
What do you want for Newark? What do you want for this-
Breaunna McCray (06:33):
The violence to stop. The violence to stop. Everybody just coming together. You know. I’m tired of losing friends. I just want the violence to stop.
Laura Flanders (06:46):
To understand the context of that violence better, here and across the country, it’s important to look back to the Newark Rebellion of 1967.
Speaker 9 (07:05):
The worst race riots since those two years ago in the Watts section of Los Angeles rocked New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, for five consecutive days and nights. At least 24 persons are killed, more than 1,800 wounded, some 1,400 arrested.
Speaker 9 (07:26):
Two days after its beginning, police are augmented by national guardsman. Snipers make the streets a battlefield. Governor Hughes terms the rioting open rebellion, just like wartime. .
Dax-Devlon Ross (07:44):
My name is Dax-Devlon Ross. I’m a investigative reporter with Type Investigations. 1967 happens, a year later this huge report comes out. The war on drugs begins in the 1970s, 1980s.
Richard Nixon (07:58):
America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all out offensive.
Dax-Devlon Ross (08:11):
You start to see this police department that is beginning to just be able to operate with impunity in the community. And then in 1991, we encountered the beating of Rodney King. This is grainy footage that we kind of look at as historical artifact. Is it a significant turning point and is actually the beginnings of a movement to create some kind of tool at the federal level to address police accountability and police misconduct.
Laura Flanders (08:49):
Over the years, different administrations have taken different approaches to crime and violence in Newark. From flooding the streets with cops and national guard, to raCial profiling and a federal consent decree that put local policing under the oversight of the federal government. In 2014, Mayor Ras Baraka came into office pledging a different approach.
Ras Baraka (09:06):
Where we are now and where we are when the DOJ first came in and did their investigation and found that Newark was having deep issues around violating people’s constitutional rights. 75% unwarranted patterns of racial discrimination and excessive use of force. I will work. We’re trying to make sure we uphold people’s constitutional rights, improve the relationship with the community. Here it’s has also equaled a reduction in crime. In fact, we have some of the lowest numbers of murders in this city since 1961.
Dax-Devlon Ross (09:39):
So I had an opportunity to sit down with the mayor and one of the things he pointed out to me was that he saw the consent decree as the floor, not the ceiling. And by that, he meant that the consent decree gave cover for a number of other projects and programs and pilots even in the Newark community street team as part of these initiatives and these innovations that were designed to bring community voice into the strategy.
Laura Flanders (10:06):
A lot of places have experimented with giving the public some kind of oversight over police. But here in Newark, New Jersey, they’re taking that one step further. The Newark Community Street Team composed almost entirely of lifelong residents uses its social networks, its friends and family, to convene conversations with police about public safety. And now they’re not only meeting regularly with the police forces, they’re helping to train them and they’re helping to determine how the police and the public interact.
Laura Flanders (10:37):
To lead this community based strategy, Mayor Baraka brought in Aqeela Sherills. An organizer from Watts South Central LA. He was one of those who brokered a landmark truce between rivals gangs in that city in 1992.
Aqeela Sherrills (10:54):
I am originally from Los Angeles in a small community called Watts that has a big reputation in history. Grew up in a run down housing project there, the youngest of 10 kids. Participated in what many social justice activist call the longest running war in the history of this country, which has been urban street gang wars. Fortunately came out of it and played a significant role in bringing an end to a lot of the violence in my community.
Laura Flanders (11:21):
You became a broker of a peace accord. Can you talk about that?
Aqeela Sherrills (11:26):
This was LA ’88, ’89. This was the height of the wars. 1,100 murders a year in the city, 1,500 in the county. This meeting was historic. 1,500 gang members from all across the city came together. We organized the peace treaty between the four housing projects that changed the quality of life in our community.
Laura Flanders (11:43):
How did you coming out of that experience come to be doing this work?
Aqeela Sherrills (11:47):
I came to be in Newark through Mayor Ras Baraka, who’s been a good friend for close to 25 years. He called me up and was like, “Hey, can you bring some of the brothers out here to educate these young cats on what you guys have done with Grape Street?”
Laura Flanders (12:02):
Your work is all about localism, but you’re from LA. Do you find any resistance to your presence doing this work here in New Jersey?
Aqeela Sherrills (12:11):
When I first got here, people was like, the mayor bought this guy from county in here. Get out of here, you know. Had all types of challenges and stuff. However, the rebellion in Watts and in Newark, they started with law enforcement. Over policing communities, the excessive force issues, it’s been going on for over a hundred years and we still haven’t figured out how to resolve it until now. Our work is essentially about shifting the community’s perception of so-called gang members, engaging them in the public safety process. And so our analysis was that in many cases we know all of these individuals, but yet we don’t have the tools and the skills, and sometimes the resources, to be able to bail them out of the situation when they’re in crisis.
Laura Flanders (12:56):
It’s not easy to build healthy relations across the policing divide. The police and the policed don’t easily get along. I met with Newark Public Safety Director, Anthony Ambrose.
Laura Flanders (13:13):
So what is the job of the public safety officer as you understand it?
Anthony Ambrose (13:17):
My job is to supervise police officers, firefighters, and office of emergency management personnel. One of the key, key positions here is crime. Crime has always been a problem here in the city. And I have now the opportunity now I’ve been working with Mayor Baraka for the last five years.
Laura Flanders (13:40):
And the difference?
Anthony Ambrose (13:41):
Everybody thinks that crime comes from you need more cops, but he comes on board and he looks at their social ills that create crime. You know, there’s education, there’s poverty, there’s unemployment. And he looks at that. But I think one of our biggest strategy is bringing the community on board with us.
Laura Flanders (13:58):
You work with the Newark Community Street Team. Had you ever worked with any organization like that before? And what is distinctive about that experience so far?
Anthony Ambrose (14:06):
When you talk about Newark Community Street Team, when it was brought in by Mayor Baraka in 2015, people frowned upon it. There’s going to be a group of people that were former gang members. They were involved. They were incarcerated. They’re a breath of fresh air. If we have some type of violence happen in an area, we call upon them, because even though we’re building trust with the community, they don’t have total trust in the police. Where they can go into an area and be trained in conflict resolution. They’re trained in deescalation. They’re in the trenches with us.
Dax-Devlon Ross (14:42):
This shift that’s taking place as a result of the Newark Community Street Team, but a number of other things that are happening in the community, but specifically something like a street team is profound and it shouldn’t be in any way kind of underestimating the impact that it can have if it’s successful in a place like Newark, in terms of being able to be replicated around the world and around the country.
Laura Flanders (15:09):
We caught up with the street team in the streets on one of their weekly outreach walks.
Daamin Durden (15:10):
All right. We’re going to take our time y’all. We’re going to do what we do every week. You know, greet the people, make sure we’re good, be pleasant, but be on point.
Daamin Durden (15:20):
We did have a shooting a week or so ago over here and so we’re just familiarizing this community with our services that we offer and other things going on in the community. It’s information. All right.
Daamin Durden (15:33):
We can actually start with these doors right here and speak with them. DJ, help us with that pace. Kind of keep pace with the other side.
Patrice Walker (15:45):
Our community walks are basically to get in touch with the community. We’re out here to try to stop violence and how we do that is we engaging in to getting to know that person, to getting to know somewhat of a life they’ve been through and try to interact or try to be in their place.
Daamin Durden (16:09):
You know it’s always a good night you making it home back safely to our families. I pray that the walk ended well. We pray we all make it home safely. Just thank y’all.
Laura Flanders (16:18):
After our initial drive around the South Ward with Daamin Durden, I joined him in the NCST office to get the rundown on the work and programs the group facilitates.
Laura Flanders (16:30):
The community walks are just one of the things you all do.
Daamin Durden (16:33):
Laura Flanders (16:34):
Can you go down the list?
Daamin Durden (16:35):
Okay. Well, we actually do what’s called safe passage. That’s our entry level work in the community where we can be in and around schools making sure children get there safely and return home safely.
Breaunna McCray (16:49):
Safe passage is me being at the school, making sure kids get back and forth into the school and out the school. This week, how can I say? It was a shooting by my school. My teammate, he works at North Star. He’s amazing. He was outside. He got all the kids off the bus stop back in the school.
Daamin Durden (17:11):
We have a high risk intervention team where we’re mediating conflicts in the community, individual conflicts as well as group conflicts. And the last thing we have is our victim services, where we offer those that are survivors of crime, wraparound services. I think the safe passage program that we call our entry level program introduces us to the community. It lets the community see us doing a service that everybody respects. Everybody loves children. Nobody thinks that children should be harmed. So that gives us a way into the community.
Malik Latimore (17:47):
What I do, I go into communities and I try to prevent crimes from happening beforehand. And I think that me being in this position has helped so many others because, again, I’ve been a person that’s been committing crimes or being accused of committing crimes for years. So for law enforcement or whoever to see me change my life, and then the people in the community to actually see me change my life, it’s been a real uptick in the people who are doing wrong, wanting to change their lives. So I think that’s what’s really positive for me to see.
Laura Flanders (18:25):
Now you said that some of the people who are your team workers have been part of the problem. You use the third person, but don’t you count yourself in that number?
Daamin Durden (18:35):
Definitely, definitely. I actually was convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison. I actually served 22 years in prison and in there kind of started doing some introspection and wanting to change my life and decided when I got out, I was going to do some things different. And lo and behold, our wonderful mayor was elected, Mayor Ras Baraka, and he started the Newark Community Street Team. And after training and working, I came in as an outreach worker and did safe passage and everything. And just was able to begin to serve our community again.
Aqeela Sherrills (19:12):
I grew up in a war zone where it was a part of our rights of passage to want to go to prison. And I thought that I would be dead or in prison by 21, 22.
Laura Flanders (19:25):
And what happened instead?
Aqeela Sherrills (19:26):
I went to college. I was always a pretty good student. I graduated from Jordan High School, got accepted to Cal State Northridge. I had a transformative experience there. I met a woman who held space for me in a way that allowed me to talk about being sexually abused as a kid, which created a tremendous amount of challenge in my life, just navigating that, not knowing how it was actually affecting me. Right? But that transformative moment was the thing that actually changed my entire life and put me on this particular path. I realized that I never questioned the violence that I witnessed in the neighborhood, because it ultimately meant to question the violence that I experienced in my own household. And I didn’t have language for it. I didn’t have the courage to confront the perpetrator.
Aqeela Sherrills (20:17):
But I had a professor, Johnny Scott, who grew up actually in Watts. He really impressed upon me the importance of reading and knowing my history. The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin was a life changer. Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land. And those things politicized me. They gave me courage. They gave me voice. And I decided that maybe we could hatch two birds in one sit, right, in terms of exposing my secret as a gift to give to those who have had a similar experience and then try to stop the killing that was happening in that neighborhood. Because I realized that there was a correlation. There are no outlets in the neighborhood for people to talk about the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that they suffered in their own personal life. And it’s the root of a lot of the violence that we see happening in the neighborhood. And our cries, they fall on deaf ears because we’ve gotten labeled as gang members. That label, we didn’t give it to ourselves. It was meant to desensitize the public. It was meant to dehumanize the people behind it. And so therefore we spent decades trying to change that narrative so that people can actually see our humanity and invest in our healing.
Laura Flanders (21:36):
Newark is seeing an influx of capital and a wave of development across the city these days. But with development often comes displacement. Getting more wealth into local hands is another part of building safety in the street team model. To discuss this, Aqeela and I headed over to Vonda’s Kitchen, a locally owned local favorite.
Aqeela Sherrills (21:59):
This is one of my favorite food places on the planet.
Laura Flanders (22:01):
All right, let’s go.
Aqeela Sherrills (22:02):
Vonda McPherson (22:05):
I’m chef Vonda McPherson and the owner of Vonda K’s Catering & Events and also Vonda’s Kitchen. I was born here in Newark and it’s nice to have a wonderful business here where you have such a supportive community. With Newark, the wonderful thing is, is that we’ve been through a tough time. The struggle has been hard and I just don’t want to see a situation where we take in so much of new developers and things and they build these communities that don’t necessarily include Newarkers. And we just want to make sure as you come in to be a part, but we don’t want you to own our city.
Laura Flanders (22:54):
All right. This is unbelievably good.
Aqeela Sherrills (22:57):
Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laura Flanders (22:58):
You’re working on creating an investment fund. What’s it called and how will it operate?
Aqeela Sherrills (23:03):
It’s called the Shared Equity Community Fund and it’s essentially a fund to organize people’s capital so that we can actually do some collective buying and collective bargaining in the community. So it’s like, how do we help people acquire wealth and then how to utilize their wealth collectively to improve the quality of life of the individuals and the communities in which they live. So ultimately that’s the aim. Public safety and community development go hand in hand. You can’t develop a community without a robust public safety strategy. So as we decrease violence and crime in the neighborhood, now we need to bring investment for those same people to buy property, to open up the businesses, to build the infrastructure in terms of healing services. And in terms of there’s a whole social services economy that needs to be built here because of the decades of traumatic stress disorder, hyper-vigilance and vicarious trauma that people have been suffering from in this community.
Malik Latimore (24:07):
Collectively when people start really realizing that healing is needed, right? You need to heal from this stuff. It’s nothing that you can just internalize and it’s just over with, right? Once we see that and we see that that can ultimately help people, I think that’s kind of like where we at in the city. We are like collectively try to heal.
Breaunna McCray (24:32):
Soon as I got with NCST, it’s just a healing process. Our street team is more like a family to me, it’s more like a family. We’re really trying to make a difference in our community.
Malik Latimore (24:47):
So we’re looking for the peace officers, which is us, to create peace in the community, right? Because shared safety is important to understanding that public safety is shared. It’s not just domain to law enforcement, Newark Community Street Team, they’re creating something real special here. I don’t want to miss out on it. This is the stuff that I always say, I don’t want to miss out on this ship. This ship is going to sail and there ain’t going to be no rough waters though, because we’re smoothing out. We smoothing it out as we go.
Daamin Durden (25:17):
One of the things that we say at NCST is that safety is not just the absence of violence and crime, but actually the ability for the most vulnerable amongst us to thrive and have hope. And so we look to kind of offer that to them, by looking at us as an example that we can show and take this message throughout the country.
Speaker 5 (25:43):
What do we want?
Speaker 5 (25:49):
When do we want it?
Speaker 5 (25:49):
What do we want?
Speaker 5 (25:49):
When do we want it?
Laura Flanders (25:49):
In the summer of 2020, protesters shut down cities across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man in Minneapolis. Newark saw large demonstrations, but minimal property damage, no violence, and no arrests. A phenomenon attributed by many to the policies of Mayor Baraka and Public Safety Director Ambrose, as well as the work of the street team and other local groups. As people demand new approaches to public safety and public health, and demand that public resources be moved from police to community, the Newark Community Street Team is one model of what’s possible.
Speaker 5 (25:49):
Speaker 5 (25:49):