Negotiate or Crack Down? Newark Candidates Disagree on Gangs

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In downtown Newark, resident Sharif Amenhotep says he’s seen an increase in crime that scares him even in the daylight hours in the city’s busiest neighborhood.

“From carjackings, to muggings, to murders,” he says. “You come to a shopping area where you’re supposed to be safe and you’re still liable to get shot and hit by a stray bullet.”

There were 111 murders among Newark’s 280,000 residents last year. Per capita, that makes Newark one of the most deadly cities in the country. 

New York City had 333 murders among its more than 8 million residents.

The two candidates running for mayor in Newark say their top priority is to reduce crime. How they would do that is one of the few policy differences between the two Democrats.

Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries both say they will work to prevent criminal behavior by growing jobs, strengthening the public school system, and expanding prisoner re-entry services for ex-offenders.

They differ on how to deal with gangs.

A Hard Line on Gangs

Jeffries says he would have a zero tolerance policy on violent crime. 

“We’re going to be very aggressive,” Jeffries said at a recent debate. “We’re going to be relentlessly aggressive. We want to change the culture.”

He says too many Newarkers have gone to jail on drug offenses. He would seek to get them treatment, he said.

“The folks I’m talking about arresting are folks walking around with illegal guns and using them to kill or carjack Newarkers,” he said.

He wants mandatory minimum sentences for anyone caught with an illegal gun. Then he wants to help them when they get out of jail.

“Often time you have a conviction you can’t get a driver’s license,” Jeffries said. “Certain convictions you can’t get housing benefits or welfare benefits. We’re going to help people overcome those struggles. And as a civil right attorney, I’ve done a lot of these cases.”

Jeffries is a law professor at Seton Hall Law School in Newark who has done free civil rights work in the city.

When he was an Assistant Attorney General, Jeffries ran the Juvenile Justice Commission in the state. There, he says, he doubled the graduation rates among juveniles convicted of crimes and reduced their re-arrest rate by almost 30-percent. 

Working with Gang Members

His opponent, Ras Baraka, says a hard line on gangs won’t reduce crime in areas where there are few job opportunities.

He would give tax credits to businesses willing to invest in high crime neighborhoods.

“We have not attacked the causes of crime, which is poverty,” Baraka said. “Poverty, unemployment, the deterioration of families, the lack of intervention.”

As principal at Central High School, Baraka worked with gangs.

“We eradicate it from the inside not just from the outside,” he said. “I have experience in making sure the gang culture is eradicated. I did it at Central High School almost completely. Got gang members to put their weapons down.”

As Deputy Mayor in 2004, Baraka organized the first cease fire in Newark between the Bloods and the Crips – 150 members of the rival gangs got together in a basement in Newark for the peace agreement.

In 2010, Baraka wrote two letters asking for leniency for a gang member charged with murder.

Jeffries, whose mother was killed by gun violence, has criticized his opponent for this.  

The decision whether or not to work with gangs is complicated, says Paul Boxer. an associate professor at Rutgers University in Newark who studies gang interventions.

He says getting gang leaders to work with police officers could lower crime.

“They’re very influential, charismatic kinds of individuals,” Boxer said. “So through that status they may be able to influence positively the behavior of other gang members, especially younger gang members.”

But Boxer says it can be dangerous, too.  

“The gang members they choose to work with may have their status elevated even further and could promote their own power,” he said. “It could backfire in terms of utilizing that power to affect even more problems.”

Crime on the Campaign Trail

The mayoral campaign has been marked by some petty crime, too.

A small fire was set on Ras Baraka’s campaign bus, and two paid workers for the Jeffries campaign were arrested in connection with the fire.

The private offices of Jeffries’ campaign manager were broken into and laptops and an iPad were stolen.

And in January, Baraka showed up at Jeffries home unannounced at 9:30 p.m., which resulted in a shouting match.

All of this has led to tension at the debates.

Baraka supporters often don’t let Jeffries speak. And when you see the candidates sitting side-by-side, often inches apart from each other, you can see that they’re bickering.

At a debate in the Ivy Hill neighborhood, the moderator tried to draw attention to it.

“Not only are you guys talking in the audience, but there’s a lot of talking going on up here,” she said.

Then someone in the crowd shouted out, “let’s keep it civil up there.”