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Civil Rights Reforms en Route to Newark Police

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) - A settlement reached Wednesday with the Justice Department prohibits Newark police officers from using any form of racial profiling in searches or decisions to seek warrants in almost all cases.

Concluding a five-year investigation, the 77-page consent decree marks the third time in recent months that federal authorities have condemned city police departments for unconstitutional tactics.

According to a report by the Justice Department filed in July 2014, Newark's police engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, frisks, arrests, use of excessive force and theft. The report lay the blame for such constitutional violations on a lack of accountability in the police department and an ineffective internal affairs department.

Many say the investigation grew out of a 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union on excessive force and improper arrests by city police, including one officer who faced 62 investigations by internal affairs. The ACLU followed up with a petition asking for a federal investigation.

Newark's top officials were initially defiant. Then-Mayor Cory Booker, a current New Jersey senator, was quoted in 2010, for example, as saying the civil rights group was "casting unnecessary aspersions on the police department through a distortion of facts."

The tenor of such reactions has changed in recent years, however, amid increasing scrutiny on police for apparent civil rights abuses involving unarmed black suspects.

Current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka proved kinder to the investigation after taking office in 2014. "We cannot arrest our way out of the problems we have in Newark," Baraka was quoted as saying then.

Baraka said today at a press conference that the city views the consent decree as an opportunity, not a problem.

One of the most significant changes under today's consent decree is that it prohibits Newark Police Department from "considering any demographic category as a factor, to any extent or degree, in establishing reasonable suspicion or probable cause during routine or spontaneous enforcement activities."

The settlement considers age, race, national origin, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation among the demographic categories prohibited. Such profiling is allowed in cases involving "a specific suspect description from a trustworthy source that is relevant to the locality or time," the settlement states.

Newark will undertake other major changes under the consent decree. The city will retrain police officers in using de-escalation techniques whenever possible, use in-car and body cameras on officers, and beef up its accounting of seized property to curtail police theft. The police department also will improve officer training related to stops, searches, and arrests, as well as improve its record management.

Today's announcement comes two weeks after Newark's municipal council approved the creation of a civilian oversight body to pursue resident concerns.

Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey, who helped with a similar consent decree involving the New Jersey State Police, is likely to lead a team to monitor the city's compliance.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said Newark's police have integrity but that "the department is challenged in fundamental ways and has engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing in a broad range of areas." Fishman also said the department's relationship with Newark residents has "suffered dramatically."

The consent decree can be terminated after seven years if federal authorities find Newark has not been in full compliance for two years. Conversely, if Newark achieves full compliance for at least two years, the court will terminate the consent decree.

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