Newark: African-Americans don't want whites running the police department
It was the kind of feel-good news conference that elected officials relish: Mayor Cory A. Booker told a room full of rapt reporters about the creation of new law enforcement posts, plans for dozens of surveillance cameras in the most crime-soaked neighborhoods and millions of dollars in private largess to help pay for what officials say will be the most high-tech gunshot detection system in the country.
But buried among the heady announcements on Tuesday was a personnel change that has the potential to create untold aggravation for City Hall. The mayor removed the word “acting” from the title of his police chief, Anthony Campos, a Portuguese-American who, along with Police Director Garry F. McCarthy, leads the city’s 1,300-member police force.
In a city like Newark, where the majority of the population is black and race issues bubble just below the surface, the decision to place two white men at the helm of the city’s Police Department could threaten the good will and unity that Mr. Booker has been enjoying of late. The racially diverse residents were drawn together after the shocking murder last week of three young friends.
In making Mr. Campos the city’s permanent police chief after a year, Mr. Booker has pleased the city’s powerful Portuguese population, but he risks angering those who had been hoping he would give the job to Niles Wilson, a popular black police captain who had been Mr. Campos’s chief of staff.
“Rightly or wrongly, perception is just as important as reality, and in a city that is largely African-American, there is not going to be a comfort level with two white guys running the Police Department,” said former Mayor Kenneth Gibson. “Quite frankly, this is going to be a problem he doesn’t need.”
During his news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Booker unveiled a host of leadership changes in Newark’s police force. Captain Wilson was made a deputy director of the department, a post that officials say will give him more responsibility and stature than the police chief. He gave the department’s other deputy director position to Sgt. Gustavo Medina, an internal affairs investigator who is president of the Hispanic Law Enforcement Society.
Keith Isaac, a police lieutenant and former Air Force sergeant who is black, was appointed emergency management director.
“I think residents of the city of Newark will look at our leadership team and see a very diverse, very representative group of people,” Mr. Booker said, standing on a dais with the newly appointed officials, all of whom, he pointed out, were born and raised in Newark. “I think you’ll see people who are competent and qualify fully for the positions they hold.”
But in a city that places great value on symbolism — and one that keeps a wary eye on its past — Mr. Booker has nevertheless violated a tradition, decades old, that split the jobs of police director and police chief along racial lines. “That’s just the way it’s always been,” Mr. Gibson said. “For African-Americans especially, it’s just a response to real and imagined police mistreatment.”
The sentiment has its roots in the riots of 1967, which were prompted by an episode of police brutality against a black cabdriver. In the years that followed, officials have worked hard to diversify the police force, which was once overwhelmingly white but is now almost equally divided among blacks, whites and Latinos; two of the city’s four precinct commanders are members of minority groups.
Despite the progress, many African-Americans — who make up 55 percent of Newark’s population — say that they deserve a greater share of power when it comes to law enforcement.
It also does not help that Mr. Booker is often accused of not being “authentically black” because of his suburban upbringing.
Donald M. Payne Jr., a City Council member who had been lobbying for Captain Wilson’s promotion to police chief, said he was disappointed by the decision to keep Mr. Campos in the position. “This just continues the pattern of denigrating African-Americans,” he said.
Mr. Booker said, however, that the decision to keep Mr. Campos was about public safety and principle. “At the end of the day,” he said, “Newarkers care about results.”