Tipping Point

The shooting of four college friends, three fatally, in Newark last August triggered local finger-pointing, national grandstanding, and a torrent of cries for help. Then a curious thing happened. The rhetoric subsided as city officials and residents began fighting— together—to win back the streets.

The candles and prayer cards         lovingly placed on the rusted metal bleachers are gone. The makeshift memorial that bloomed on the macadam playground at the Mount Vernon School in Newark was removed before the first day of school in September, so that recess could include games of foursquare and tag without added reminders of the preceding month’s anguish.
Residents of the city’s Ivy Hill section still mourn the three Newark friends who were hanging out in the playground in the early hours of August 4, when they were forced to kneel before a brick wall and were executed with a bullet to the head. A fourth friend, Natasha Aeriel, 19, who was standing nearby, was shot behind the ear, but survived.  She gave police information that led to the swift arrest of six suspects, including two juveniles.

What made the bloodbath more shocking was that the victims were not among the estimated 2,000 gang members who battle the 1,200-person Newark police force for control of the streets in New Jersey’s largest city. They didn’t use or deal drugs. They didn’t have criminal records. Dashon Harvey, 20; Iofemi Hightower, 20; Terrance Aeriel, 18; and his sister, Natasha, were all enrolled at Delaware State University.

The shootings embarrassed a city that was supposed to be on the mend, a mayor who had pledged to reduce violence. 

“Suddenly, we had this vicious cutting  back to the bone of all the growth that we’ve experienced,” says Mayor Cory Booker. “This happened in a way that I think captured the old stereotypes of Newark and had those stereotypes clashing against the movement that people see happening in Newark.”

Within days, Booker’s political opponents—some elected, some not—held press conferences and rallies calling for his resignation. People who had stood with former mayor Sharpe James during a twenty-year increase in homicides and gang activity used the Ivy Hill shootings against Booker. The mayor’s dramatic ascent had made him a national prototype for young black leaders, but fourteen months after taking office he was in trouble in his own backyard.

Many city residents viewed Booker—who grew up in Harrington Park and earned degrees from Stanford and Yale—with suspicion. Some suggested he wasn’t black enough, was too educated, too much an outsider to truly unite the city. It didn’t help that after launching a national search for a new police director, Booker ultimately selected Garry McCarthy, a former crime strategist and deputy chief in the New York City Police Department.

Those who know Booker were not surprised he chose McCarthy, who happens to be white. Booker has long viewed the NYPD’s performance in the early 1990s under then mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a template for effective big-city crime-stopping.

“When I was in college, New York City was seen as ungovernable, and the crime  was seen to be out of control,” Booker says. “They didn’t flip that around in one year; it was about four years before people started saying, ‘Wait a minute, this has changed.’ And so we’re going to be doing that now.”

Even before the City Council approved his appointment, McCarthy, 48, came under fire. Anthony Miranda of the Latino Officers Association argues that McCarthy, who worked under four different police commissioners in New York, is heavy-handed. “He brings New York strategies into New Jersey, and he mirrors all the shortcomings that New York has,” Miranda says.

Forty years after the riots that ripped the city to shreds, skin color remains a touchy subject. During Booker’s first run for mayor in 2002, Sharpe James played the race card, telling Booker, “You have to learn to be African-American, and we don’t have time to train you.” Some critics remain rankled that Booker installed a white man in a premier position that for decades had been held by a minority.

“I’m hard-pressed to understand why Booker, a black mayor in a city that’s predominantly African-American, with a growing Latino population, could not find an African-American or a Latino police director, and couldn’t find someone who was already on the force,” says Larry Hamm of the People’s Organization for Progress. “I understand the vicissitudes of politics, but with as sensitive a job as police director, I’m hard-pressed to see how one could not appoint someone who has some connection to the community. That was one of the demands that came out of the [1967] rebellion. There had to be a black police director. I’m still hard-pressed to see why Booker did that, and on top of that to get someone who had been in the Guiliani administration.”

Booker is unfazed by the criticism. “We now have 100 fewer people who were shot in our city, a 28 percent drop for the third quarter, which no other city in America is experiencing right now,” he says.

“We’re the leader, from the statistics we’re seeing.

“What we’re trying to do—and McCarthy is great evidence of that—is reduce everything to objective ways of measuring performance, not rhetorical ways. Not, ‘How do you feel about the mayor’, but ‘How do you measure performance on various indicators?’ ”

McCarthy accepts the scrutiny. “I’m reminded of it virtually every day,” he says. “There’s an almost xenophobic nature to the way that people are here. But I don’t see race as an issue. I might be a white guy, but so what? I don’t come from an environment that is incomprehensible to anyone from this city.”
McCarthy believes being an outsider has actually proved an advantage. “I can see pretty clearly what the issues are in how we function as a police agency,” he says. “I know what a functional police agency should look like. I come here and I see all the things that are broken. They jump up and hit me in the face like I stepped on a rake. It’s not like I say, ‘Wow, what should I do now?’”

On taking office, McCarthy immediately doubled the size of the internal-affairs unit. “We set up a 24-hour hotline for integrity complaints by the community,” he says. “Complaints against officers are down, because they’re accountable for their conduct.”

He also shifted the way thestreets are patrolled. “When I got here, 60 percent of this agency was doing their shifts from 8 am to 4 pm, Monday through Friday,” he says. “And 30 percent of the department was doing clerical work as opposed to patrolling the streets, which is absurd.”

He doesn’t mask his contempt when he notes that the department had no centralized drug task force, instead using “a gang unit that didn’t work Saturday nights. My question was simple: ‘Do the gang members work on Saturday night?’ Guess what? We now work on Saturday night.

“We took a centralized authority and pushed it down to the precincts and the precinct commanders,” McCarthy explains. “We moved cops out of task forces and from behind desks and put about 140 cops into patrol precincts. Then we gave the precinct commanders the authority and the accountability to get things done.”

He established a warrant squad in conjunction with the state police, the Essex County prosecutor’s office, and Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura. That, too, has borne fruit. “We’ve picked up five murderers and about 40 shooters since we started that process last January.”

Most controversially, McCarthy has focused on reducing so-called quality-of-life crimes. Based on ideas laid out two decades ago by George L. Kelling in Fixing Broken Windows, the theory holds that  zero tolerance of even minor criminal offenses will deter more serious crimes.

“If you drive past a guy drinking a beer on the corner who’s got a gun in his waistband,” McCarthy says, “you’re not gonna get that gun if you don’t engage him for the beer.”

Critics contend that the policy does little more than shuffle criminals from one corner to another. “I’m sure there are some places where crime is the absolute worst, and if you over-saturate them with police officers, people feel safe for the moment,” says DeLacy Davis, former head of the National Black Police Association and a Newark resident. “The reality is that you’re not making an impact on our community.”
McCarthy insists the strategies are paying off. But so far, the number of homicides has not dropped precipitously.

“I’ve given a lot of thought to this,” says the Rev. DeForest B. Soaries, a longtime conservative leader in the state’s African-American community and a former New Jersey secretary of state under former governor Christie Todd Whitman. “Either the expectation was unrealistic or [Booker’s] strategy is unrealistic. I think it’s realistic to make that a priority. But in so doing, the first thing he has to concede is that he can’t solve the problem. He can be the chief cheerleader, he can be the chief organizer, but this culture of violence has got to be stopped from the ground up.”

It wasn’t just that three more young people died in Newark. In the eight months before the August massacre, violence on the streets claimed 56 lives. By the end of November, more people had died. Neither was it just the brutality of the attacks. These were kids who worked two jobs to earn money for college. One of them, Terrance Aeriel, was a part-time preacher. Another, Dashon Harvey, had been a drum major at Shabazz High School.

As his father, James Harvey, would later tell police, Dashon Harvey “grew up to be the man I wanted him to be.”

In short, the victims were the poster children for the new Newark. They were the kind of kids Booker hopes will someday erase the reputation Newark earned over 40 years as one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden cities in the country—a place that, despite progress, still ranks near the bottom on all national scales of unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, and other symptoms of urban decay. 

The Mount Vernon shootings showed how far the city still is from banishing drugs and mayhem, and how fragile is the promise of the new Newark. The crimes exasperated longtime law-enforcement officials. Fontoura, the Essex County sheriff, who was born and raised in Newark’s Ironbound section, raised eyebrows in August when he rashly told Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran, “I’m on the verge of telling my guys to suspend civil liberties and start frisking everybody. You want to live by the Constitution, but by the same token you have a responsibility to protect these people. I don’t know what else to do.”

Fontoura admits, “When I spoke, I spoke out of frustration.” He has tempered his opinion slightly, but he still believes the situation on the streets is in crisis and that more aggressive policing is part of the answer, even if it steps on toes.

National scrutiny of Newark did not end with the arrests of the six suspects. Instead, new issues were raised. Alleged ringleaders Jose Carranza, 28, and Rodolfo Godinez, 24, are illegal immigrants who had been arrested for other crimes. With that news, and reports that the suspects may be affiliated with the notorious MS-13 gang, Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo held a press conference in front of City Hall two weeks after the murders.

Running on a promise of immigration reform, Tancredo accused the mayor and the police of allowing Newark to become a “sanctuary city” for illegal aliens. Tancredo didn’t tour the city before or after the press conference, but headed to New York for TV appearances in which he reiterated his case and expressed hope that the families of the victims would sue the city he called “culpable” for the crimes.
Thus attacked by an outsider, the warring local factions cooled the rhetoric and seemed to resolve to work together.

“Crime is down in almost every category you can measure,” Fontoura says. “That’s how you measure the efficiency of a police department. How many robberies are there? How many cars are being stolen or hijacked? All those indicators are down. But violence and murder continue to rise—we can’t put a dent in the murder rate.”

In Fontoura’s view, Newark is being held hostage by a relatively small but formidable cadre of about 2,000 young thugs. According to the latest U.S. Census, 26 percent of the city’s 277,000 residents are under age 18. Many of those kids lack stable situations at home, making them vulnerable to the predations of gang-bangers promising protection, a sense of family, and fast money. The combined forces of local, county, and federal police in Newark also number about 2,000, steepening their odds of choking off gang recruitment. “It is not that unusual to be a gangster nowadays,” Fontoura says.

If the link between the Mount Vernon shooters and the MS-13 gang is proven, the cops’ job will only get tougher. Newsweek deemed the Central American drug gang to be the most dangerous in America, with thousands of members across 33 states. Investigators are divided as to whether the August 4 massacre—in which the victims were robbed before being shot— began as a kind of initiation for the younger suspects.

West Coast gangs tend to have tight, top-down leadership and centralized organization. Newark gangs, by contrast, tend to be small, independent operations, with the gang-banger’s only real allegiance being to his own crew. As McCarthy puts it, the city’s gangs “represent the unionization of the narcotics trade.

Years ago, guys selling drugs on the corner were just drug dealers. Today they’re called Crips or Bloods.”
Police work alone will never suffice. “We can change it to a degree,” McCarthy says, “but the cycle of narcotics, poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education—all those things everybody knows about—have occurred for a number of social reasons to put this city in the position that it’s in.”

After decades of bloodshed, says Rev. Soaries, “residents accept violence as part of reality. It is not an aberration. Gunshots, bullet shells, and funerals have become part of the culture.”

A few months after he arrived in Newark, McCarthy saw how deeply the despair is ingrained. “I was at a community meeting,” he relates. “We were talking about a place where we wiped out a heroin ring. I actually heard community residents say, ‘Those heroin dealers really weren’t that bad.’ It caught me completely flat-footed. I said, ‘Wow, talk about low expectations.’  I’ve never heard of such a thing. If people endorse heroin dealers being in their midst, having to walk their children around junkies buying heroin in the morning, we’re doomed to fail.” McCarthy contends that attitudes can change, and he credits Booker with helping move things in the right direction.

“If I don’t get the job done, then run me out of town on a rail,” McCarthy says. “But I’m pretty confident people will look at the way we achieve things here, and all that will be overcome.”

Of course, change that dramatic won’t happen in a vacuum. The murder rate will fall only as part of an overall Newark revival, McCarthy admits.

“It’s not that we’re going to flip a switch and it’s going to be overnight,” he says. “I am confident that people four years from now will have a much different view of Newark. It’s going to be seen more as a comeback city.” Three days after Booker spoke those words, in October, police found the bullet-riddled bodies of two people in a car parked outside a house on North 13th Street. They were the eighteenth and nineteenth victims of homicide in Newark since the deaths in the schoolyard.

As Natasha Aeriel, the lone survivor, slowly recovers from her wounds, she has become a symbol of hope. “She’s doing wonderfully,” says James Harvey, Dashon’s father, who periodically speaks to her. “By no means is she out of the woods, but she’s out of the hospital, she’s speaking, and she’s in high spirits. She still has injuries and she still has regular doctor visits. I don’t know how things will play out psychologically. But as of now, she’s on the road to a successful physical recovery.”

Some residents are cutting Booker a bit of slack. Abdul Mahammad, business director of Street Warriors, one of several community groups that works with City Hall, says the mayor has inherited a series of intractable problems. “There are things that Mayor Booker could do better,” he says. “But you’re dealing with so many problems that have happened over a period of time. I think we have to give him a chance.” 
Mahammad is willing to wait only so long. “Come back two, three years from now and then we can say, ‘All right, these are some of the things that you promised that you have not done.’”

The shootings on Ivy Hill may prove to be Cory Booker’s defining moment, his last best chance to leverage Newark’s decades of pain to build a safer future. Booker says the goal is achievable.

“You might just chalk it up to a braggadocio mayor, but we are really gonna demonstrate something wonderful in this city,” he says. “I believe things happen for a reason. The spotlight is on Newark. People are saying, ‘Oh, these are impossible challenges,’ but I think we are going to see in the next four or five years a way out of ‘no way.’ We’re gonna see that the impossible is not only possible but truly achievable, and that will be manifest here in Newark.”

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