Conflict & Justice

Check out this new documentary on New Jersey's fight to 'police the police'

The high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner have led to widespread protests, viral hashtag campaigns, and a heated national conversation about race and police brutality in America. That conversation is front-and-center in Newark, New Jersey — one of the United States' most violent cities and home to one of the most controversial police departments in the country.

In Newark, distrust of the police stretches back decades. The city erupted in riots in 1967 after residents saw police beat a black cab driver and drag him into the precinct, and many residents say these aggressive tactics still exist today.

In 2014, the US Department of Justice agreed with the concerns of residents and advocates and found that Newark police were "engaging in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, and use of excessive force by officers, which had a disparate impact on minorities in Newark."

Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at The New Yorker, hit the streets of Newark with officers and residents for a new FRONTLINE documentary called “Policing the Police.” He wanted to find out if successful policing can “be done in a way that still respects people's rights."

“You wind up in situations where people’s rights are being violated,” Cobb explains. “And just so we’re clear what we’re talking about here — we’re talking about stops where officers would pull someone’s waistband away from their body and look down at their genitals to see if they had a weapon. [Some citizens are] just randomly walking down the street and suddenly someone is looking at your private parts.”

After overcoming some obstacles in accessing the Newark Police Department, Cobb said that his time with officers was eye opening.

“Their conception of people’s rights was so narrow that unless [the officer] had done something egregious, they didn’t believe anyone’s rights had been violated,” he says.

Referring to a scene in which an officer stopped and frisked a 10-year-old boy, Cobb reflects: “I think the officer did not seem to recognize how traumatizing that could be for someone.”

The officer explained to Cobb that some people in Newark give illegal substances to little kids, knowing that if the child is caught, they won’t face serious penalties.

Having spent a year in Newark, Cobb says this crime scheme is plausible. Yet even if a stop-and-frisk turns up nothing, Cobb says that police still see suspects as guilty.

“There’s almost this presumption that if someone doesn’t have anything illegal on them, they must have ditched it or stashed it,” he says. “There’s no recognition that what you did, very likely, was stop and search a 10-year-old.”

Cobb says that police should be trying to balance citizens' rights with the wellbeing of Newark itself, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

“There actually is a Fourth Amendment,” Cobb notes. “And I think we should be mindful of it and protective of it. At the same time, there are real concerns with crime.”

Cobb acknowledges the challenging task that lies before law enforcement.

“We’ve had kind of a dueling dialogue here where one part of the conversation is saying, ‘People really don’t understand how difficult it is for the police,’ and having spent almost a year in Newark, I am sympathetic to that idea — it is a phenomenally difficult job, and a phenomenally difficult job to do well,” Cobb says. “But the other side of it is that, it is very often difficult for these officers to imagine what it is like to be on the other side of an interaction with them.”

When asked if he thinks Newark’s leadership can do anything to foster change, Cobb takes a deep breath.

“I had an exchange with the mayor of the city, Ras Baraka, and he said, ‘If I didn’t believe things could be better, why would I bother to get out of bed in the morning?’”

Cobb calls this a sign of realistic optimism.

“Things can change, but they will probably be very difficult to change and it will likely take a long time,” he says.

This story was first published by The Takeaway. "Policing the Police" airs Tuesday night on PBS (check local listings), and is produced by our partners at WGBH. Check out a trailer for the documentary below.