In March, Newark, New Jersey—not so long ago dubbed “America’s Most Dangerous City”—celebrated its first homicide-free month in 44 years. Overall, since 2006, Newark has seen its number of shootings cut in half and its murder rate drop by a third. Only Los Angeles boasts more impressive numbers over the same period. The city’s crime turnaround is a testament to Newark mayor Cory Booker and his handpicked police director, Garry McCarthy, and it shows that NYPD-style proactive policing can succeed in even the nation’s most troubled cities.
When Booker, who is seeking reelection on May 11, first tapped McCarthy from the top echelon of the NYPD to serve as Newark’s police director, the appointment was met with skepticism and even outright hostility. Newark is a notoriously insular place, and the hiring of a white outsider to lead the largely African-American city’s police force was a controversial move. McCarthy, however, soon began to win the trust of community leaders by meeting with them and listening to their concerns. As McCarthy puts it, “No one wants crime down more than the religious and community leaders of Newark; they have been full partners in our success.”
When McCarthy arrived in Newark in October 2006, the department was a mess and crime was out of control. One in four police officers never left their desks; the department’s gang unit didn’t work weekends. McCarthy began by implementing the now-famous Compstat crime-tracking and accountability system that proved so effective in New York. Via Compstat, McCarthy gained control of the department and pushed resources out onto the streets, directing them to the neighborhoods that needed them the most. McCarthy also brought “Operation Impact” across the Hudson, an initiative that identifies high-crime zones and floods them with new police recruits.
Under Booker’s and McCarthy’s leadership, 100 additional cops joined the force. The Newark Police Foundation has raised money to support the deployment of new crime-fighting technology, including more than 100 wireless video-surveillance cameras, a sonic gunshot-detection system, and the operation of the city’s “Crime Stopper” and “Gun Stopper” anonymous tip lines. Since the anonymous tip lines began, police have received more than 3,000 calls, resulting in more than 200 arrests. A gun “buy-back” program also removed some 340 illegal firearms from Newark’s streets.
The city has also initiated “Community Safety Caravans,” in which volunteers in minivans, escorted by police cars, patrol high-crime areas at night. And the Booker administration has launched a Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative (NPRI) that works to reduce recidivism by helping recently released prisoners find jobs and reconnect with their families. (The Manhattan Institute works with the Booker administration on the NPRI.)
According to McCarthy, however, the real keys to Newark’s crime decline are the new anti-narcotics and gun violence reduction strategies that the department has put into place. McCarthy has established a new “Gun Enhancement Team” that focuses on thoroughly investigating each illegal-firearm recovery. A new 14-page “general order” details how police should handle such investigations. After an illegal gun has been recovered, detectives are encouraged to ask follow-up questions, such as “Where did you get the gun?” or “What do you know about other gun crimes in your neighborhood?” Each gun arrest is treated as a shooting averted. “We want to put the fear of God into people who carry guns,” says McCarthy.
The Newark Police Department has also enhanced coordination with officials at the federal, state, and county levels to trace more effectively guns’ point of origin, to dismantle smuggling networks, and to increase illegal possession conviction rates. Essex County, which includes Newark, now devotes two assistant prosecutors full-time to gun-crime prosecution, replicating, in a way, New York City’s successful “gun courts.” And the state recently upgraded illegal gun possession to a second-degree felony, punishable by three to five years in prison.
McCarthy has also totally revamped narcotics enforcement in Newark. “Narcotics are the vehicle that drives violent crime in this city,” he says. When he was commanding officer in New York’s 33rd Precinct in Washington Heights, McCarthy made a name for himself by successfully implementing a “model block” program that worked to shut down both the supply and demand ends of the narcotics market in that once drug-infested neighborhood. Now he’s applying the same tactics in Newark, with similar success.
“Our goal in Newark is to eliminate the narcotics markets, one by one by one, hold on to them, and not give them back,” says McCarthy. This “clear and hold” strategy was most evident on March 17, when the Newark police conducted an early-morning operation at the Garden Spires public-housing complex and arrested 34 suspected drug dealers. The operation capped off a six-month-long investigation into Newark’s narcotics trade that included some three dozen undercover operations, resulting in 150 arrests.
These were not just a few “buy and bust” operations, but a dismantling of a major portion of Newark’s narcotics market. Now, to ensure that the vacuum created does not attract other drug organizations, the Newark police are increasing their presence at known drug locations and working with community organizations to help organize block watches, youth councils, and tenant associations. The hope is that the police and community leaders can work together to create an environment where drug dealers and their clients no longer feel welcome. “As long as somebody goes to a location to buy drugs, the supply will show up,” McCarthy observes. “If there is no demand, the supply will never come. You have to eliminate both.”
McCarthy is quick to note that, on both the guns and narcotics fronts, improved coordination within the law-enforcement community has been a key component of Newark’s success. In years past, the numerous law-enforcement agencies operating in Newark—the DEA, FBI, State Police, State Attorney General, Essex County Prosecutor, and Essex County Sheriff—often functioned as separate “information silos” and didn’t share intelligence in a timely manner with the Newark police. However, through a new effort called Violent Enterprise Source Targeting (VEST), all these organizations are working together as never before. VEST’s mission is “to identify, target, disrupt, and dismantle violent criminal drug, gang, weapons, and money laundering operations in Newark.” The process is monitored through biweekly meetings where representatives from each organization meet to discuss active cases.
Many academics still reject the idea that police can control crime. Some have tried to attribute Newark’s crime reduction to various external factors, including dumb luck. But as usual, they overlook the obvious answer: smart police work directed by strong leadership. In fact, McCarthy is just one of more than a dozen former NYPD officials who have taken over police departments across the country, brought with them the strategies and tactics that worked so well in Gotham, and achieved similar results. Most notable is former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, who, as chief of the Los Angeles police from 2002 to 2009, reduced homicides by 58 percent and greatly improved police-community relations.
This NYPD diaspora is transforming American policing from coast to coast, but nowhere more impressively than in Newark. There were nine shootings in Newark on one of McCarthy’s first days on the job. “I spent the entire day going from shooting to shooting to shooting,” he notes. Today, entire weeks go by without a single shooting. As a result, there is a new feeling of optimism in the city, with stores and restaurants opening up in long-dormant buildings and new condos and parks rising from vacant lots. It’s quite a transformation to behold: “America’s Most Dangerous City” is now leading the country in crime reduction and proving, once again, that, properly led, police can cut crime.