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Months Later, Cuts To Newark Police Have Residents On Edge

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When Georgia Wise, a longtime Newark resident, heard that the city was laying off 162 police officers in December of last year, she had the feeling it was going to be bad.

"You don't want to start me on this one," she said. "Why you gonna lay off all the police officers? Why would you lay off all the police officers?"

The city was facing a 2010 budget deficit of more than $100 million, and to close that gap, Mayor Cory Booker made cuts that are still rippling throughout the city. Libraries closed. City workers were furloughed. Bulk garbage piled up around town after the sanitation department stopped collecting it.

But nothing has Newark residents more upset – and worried – than the cuts to police. And Wise never imagined how personal they might get.

She remembers the night almost minute by minute – a Thursday, just a few weeks ago. Her daughter-in-law, Arlene Fields, was visiting her kids, who were living with Wise because Fields was staying in a shelter, trying to work through a drug addiction. 

They were excited to see their mom. They ate dinner together. They watched a movie: "Bad Boys II."

"It just was such a good happy day," Wise said. "I'm saying I'm so glad it was a happy day for them. I mean for all of us. It leaves no bitter. I'm so thankful for that. So thankful."

Less than an hour later, just after 8:30 p.m., Fields was heading to the bus stop, when she was shot in a drug dispute that didn’t involve her. The 42-year old died on the sidewalk.

It's one in a string of recent incidents that have plagued the Newark police department, and have residents of New Jersey's largest city on edge.

The Department of Justice announced on Monday that it was opening an investigation into allegations of civil rights violations within the department. That comes the week after the city's police director, Garry McCarthy, decided to leave Newark to head Rahm Emmanuel’s police department in Chicago. 

During all this, the department has been operating with a smaller police force – and crime has seen a spike. 

WNYC obtained internal crime data for the five months since the layoffs took effect in December. Comparing statistics for that time frame with the year before shows an increase in almost every category.

Murders are up 54 percent; car thefts are up 43 percent. Robberies rose by 17 percent, and the number of shooting victims saw close to a 50 percent increase.

While those numbers were increasing, the police department performed 3,400 fewer arrests.

"We didn't have 162 guys tucked away in a closet and said break glass in case of emergency," said Det. James Stewart, vice president of Newark's police union, which has urged the city to rehire its laid off members.

Stewart said the officers who remain in the department are stretched thin, leaving them little opportunity to do proactive policing. As a rule, he said, they simply no longer respond to certain calls. If two drivers get into a minor accident, for example, or if someone breaks into a car but there's no suspect on the scene – a cop will not come.

On top of that, according to Stewart, successful initiatives have been cut, like a program where recruits fresh out of the academy would saturate a dangerous neighborhood.

"That takes away from the fear on the street for the bad guy. He never knows when the cops are rolling up on him," Stewart said. "But as time goes on and they realized we're short-staffed, they're going to be more brazen carrying their weapons. That's going to lead to more crime."

Still, experts warn that it's very difficult to blame a crime increase on any one cause, even a reduction in force – which is a point Booker stresses.

"We had the worst summer last summer in 20 years, and we had the full compliment of police," Booker said. "So these swings in crime don’t necessarily have to do with actual less police officers."

The mayor said to cope with the layoffs, his administration reorganized the police department to make sure the same number of cops are still patrolling the streets.

"Would I welcome another 500, 600, 700 officers? Absolutely," he said. "But at the end of the day, we have to focus on driving crime down. We have the ability and the resources necessary to do that."

Just a few a blocks from the mayor's office is the spot where Wise's daughter-in-law was shot and killed. It's actually one of the busiest, most commercial intersections in Newark – the corner of Broad and Market Streets.

There are some half-deflated balloons tied to a lamppost, and a poster board with messages on it.

"Miss your smile and knowledge," reads one. "I love you girl. Always will remember you," reads another.

Nearby, Kevin Snow has been selling sunglasses and underwear from a street cart for 17 years. According to him, the last several months have been the worst he’s seen crime since Cory Booker became mayor in 2006.

"We need more police in Newark, not less," he said.

A few minutes earlier, Snow had been talking to several police officers who were patrolling the street. There were five police cars stationed around the intersection. Snow assumed they were a direct response to the murder, since he hasn't seen many police there lately, and he told them that he was glad to them back on the streets – that it made him feel safe.

Moments later, the police cars had driven away, their sirens blaring in the distance.

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