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On How Operating Under A Consent Decree Has Affected The Newark Police

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to a city whose police department is currently under a federal consent decree. Anthony Ambrose is director of public safety in Newark, N.J. He oversees police, fire and emergency management for the city. He took the position in 2016 just a couple of months before Newark's consent decree was finalized. Welcome to the program.

ANTHONY AMBROSE: How are you?

SIEGEL: And in the Justice Department memo that was made public yesterday, Attorney General Sessions said local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It's not the responsibility of the federal government to manage nonfederal law enforcement agencies. Do you agree with that sentiment?

AMBROSE: Yes and no. I do agree that there has to be a pecking order before that gets to the federal agencies. I think that the pecking order should be - when you have a problematic police department with patterns and practices, they should definitely be examined by a prosecutor's office or DA's office and the state attorney general before going to the federal level and DOJ. You know, where complaints of this magnitude are found, without a doubt an independent law enforcement watchdog is definitely needed, especially if there are systemic problems.

SIEGEL: Have you had any kind of interaction with the Justice Department since Jeff Sessions became the attorney general?

AMBROSE: Matter of fact, I did this morning. I had a conference call with them. You know, we're moving forward on some of our policy changes. This was not mentioned. We're just moving forward in our consent decree.

SIEGEL: Well, the U.S. Justice Department and Newark announced their agreement just about one year ago, a little bit over one year ago. What's changed since that time? What's the difference?

AMBROSE: I can tell you right now our internal affairs complaints are down. We've did numerous things to build trust with the community. We started a clergy, Citizen/Clergy Academy. We did the surveys. We have a web page where body-worn camera policy or anything to do with the consent decree we put on. We get input from the community. We start block watches. We have community Comstat where we bring the commanders to their neighborhoods and let them hear us talk about issues and areas, and they can talk to us.

So I think it's - you know, we've did several things. I mean just recently last week, I had the - a group of citizens to go on our firearms training facility down the range to put themselves in live situations how police officers are.

SIEGEL: But you said internal affairs complaints are down - I mean down 2 percent, you know, down by half? How far down are they?

AMBROSE: A 35 percent decrease in citizen complaints this year versus last year.

SIEGEL: Both President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have spoken about supporting police officers and boosting morale. Has the consent decree affected police officers' morale in Newark, N.J.?

AMBROSE: You know, I wouldn't say morale. I think that we - part of a consent decree - we brought every police officer in, and we explained what the consent decree was. You know, a lot of times consent decrees allow police departments to bring up to speed their training or technology because of mandates in the consent decree.

So when you talk about morale, you know, the police officers here worked harder in 2016, a year after the consent decree came out. So I have to say that these officers here in Newark - they went out there and did a hell of a job. We had a 13 percent crime reduction last year. You know, so I would say that it's like any profession. Change - you have to have change agents to sell that change and then make sure they understand what that change is about.

SIEGEL: So you said they worked harder this past year and in - or in 2016. Why?

AMBROSE: That's a good question. I think that they're a lot wiser. They had more arrests. They had - we had less crime. Believe it or not, we had less guns taken off the street but a bigger crime reduction in violence. We went after the people that we knew that were the hardcore criminals...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

AMBROSE: ...Not just any-old-body (ph).

SIEGEL: You began your career as a police officer with the Newark PD I believe more than 30 years ago. What's changed most about policing since you first put on the uniform?

AMBROSE: Well, I think - I'll tell you what. It wasn't the norm 30 years ago for the community and transparency to be the No. 1 priority. You know, it was - we met the community. We reacted to the community when there was a problem. You know, we didn't go to community meetings. We didn't have the clergy at our side. We weren't that transparent where we told them who we pulled over - their race and stuff like that. So I think that the transparency and a closer relationship with the community - I think that's what I've seen.

SIEGEL: Anthony Ambrose, public safety director for the city of Newark, N.J., thanks for talking with us.

AMBROSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.