The scenario is all too familiar. Gang violence shatters the peace of a major city. Witnesses to murders get gunned down in the streets or just disappear. When arrested, criminals confidently predict that they’ll soon be free. Despite the carnage, law enforcement seems like a low priority among public officials: crime units lack funds; the local police department is crooked and ineffective; successful prosecution rates are low.
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? No, it’s Newark, New Jersey, at the end of the Sharpe James era. Americans, horrified at the lawlessness that broke out in New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath, came to understand that the violence and looting resulted from years of decay and neglect of the city’s dysfunctional criminal-justice system. Though Newark has had no single defining moment like the hurricane, its parallels with New Orleans are unmistakable. They point to a massive failure not only of recently departed five-term mayor James but also of the county and state officials who have allowed patronage, corruption, and apathy to turn the state’s biggest city into the Northeast’s Big Easy. Now, as reform mayor Cory Booker takes office promising to get tough on crime, recent events make clear that he’ll need plenty of help.
Just weeks after Booker’s landslide victory, informants told authorities that the Bloods, one of Newark’s most vicious gangs, planned to kill the mayor-elect, because he had made a war against crime—especially gang crime—a central campaign theme. A few weeks later, Rahway prison officials found a letter outlining a plot. Though some thought the letter a hoax, Rahway guards noted that on several occasions they had caught an imprisoned Bloods leader with a cell phone (illegal behind bars), which he was using to direct gang activities in Newark.
With its long history of sleaze and ineptitude, Newark’s police department is a big part of the problem. In the 1960s, Jersey’s top mobsters—Ritchie “the Boot” Boiardo and Ray De Carlo—took control of the Newark police department, instructing Mayor Hugh Addonizio (who had won office with their help) to install a mob-related police captain as department boss. The force has never recovered from the scandal. Indeed, the crooked behavior continues: in 1996, the feds busted Newark’s top cop for pilfering a fund intended to bolster narcotics investigations—a huge betrayal of public trust in a city whose citizens were under siege from crime.
The arrest was just a symptom of larger problems with the department, described by the New York Times as “a place where corruption was long tolerated, where criminal behavior was often ignored and where would-be reformers were punished or harassed.” Despite calls for reform under Sharpe James, the police often seemed little more than the mayor’s bodyguards. In the 2002 mayoral race, in which Booker nearly upset James, Newark cops broke up the challenger’s rallies and harassed his supporters, as the Oscar-nominated film Street Fight documents.
Newark’s sky-high crime has never seemed to worry New Jersey pols much. The Essex County prosecutor’s office handles criminal cases in the city, giving it arguably the most crucial task of any of Jersey’s 21 county prosecutors. Yet it has little expertise—connections, not competence, have long governed appointments to the office, and corruption has run rampant. The state attorney general stripped one Essex County prosecutor of her powers after the indictment of four chief investigators on misconduct charges and charges that she herself had spent taxpayer money on lavish office furniture. And an investigation found that her predecessor had improperly spent some $200,000 in money seized from criminals, including $2,300 to send staff to golf tournaments.
Even as the office squandered money, its crime-fighting operations starved for funds. An investigation by Jersey’s largest paper, the Star-Ledger, revealed that the prosecutor’s crime-scene unit ran out of a converted parking garage, whose bathroom doubled as a crime-scene processing room. The unit lacked a computerized system to track evidence, and on weekends and during the evening, when most murders occur, it often had just a single CSU technician on hand. No wonder the Essex County office has one of the worst records for convictions in the state. As one juror complained, “I wouldn’t allow them to investigate the murder of a cat or a dog.”
Both of Jersey’s political parties, steeped in a political culture where patronage and outright corruption produce feckless and lawless government, as in Louisiana, have added to Newark’s criminal-justice woes. Former Democratic governor James McGreevey counted Mayor James, long boss of a powerful Newark political machine, as a key political ally, for example, and he did little when the city’s murder rate spiked several years ago. Instead, in 2003, to reward James for his support, McGreevey appointed Newark’s police boss superintendent of state police, despite plausible warnings that he, like Newark’s Addonizio-era police chief, had mob ties. The superintendent served just seven months before the press revealed that he had ordered subordinates to bring him the files on state investigations into his activities, forcing him from office.
Before McGreevey, Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman dismantled one of the few statewide anticrime programs that actually helped Newark: a state police effort to halt the flow of drugs up Jersey’s highways (and into the cities) by stopping and searching suspicious cars, especially those caught speeding. When the press accused cops of racial profiling because they disproportionately stopped black drivers, Whitman cravenly killed the program after forcing out the state police superintendent. A subsequent study by Maryland’s Public Service Research Institute showed that blacks were speeding disproportionately, accounting for the higher percentage of stops. By then, however, it was too late. The number of drug charges filed by state police from highway searches fell steeply after Whitman’s actions. Murders in Newark rocketed up 65 percent in the year after she ended the program, as the urban drug trade flourished.
Into this cauldron has stepped Booker. Even as a young councilman, he had tried to draw attention to the crime plague by camping in a trailer on street corners known for their drug trade and, later, by moving into a crime-blighted public-housing complex. But it was in his two mayoral campaigns—his unsuccessful bid in 2002 and his winning one in 2006—that he reignited outrage among Newark’s residents about crime, outrage seemingly missing from the city ever since most of its middle class fled to the suburbs after urban riots in the late sixties.
But Booker faces a tough task. His challenge should spark the interest of Jersey’s new governor, former Wall Street exec Jon Corzine, who is grappling with the state’s budget crisis. Corzine should look up from the spreadsheets and recognize that reestablishing civic order in his state’s largest city is crucial to Jersey’s future, all the more so because state taxpayers support Newark to the tune of some $750 million a year in aid, now that crime has shriveled the city’s own tax base. Even from a fiscal view, there isn’t a more important task in the state right now than ending Newark’s crime spree and getting the city off state taxpayer life support.