Newark's 40-Year Milestone: A Murder-Free Month

Newark reached a milestone this week when it recorded its first homicide-free month in 44 years. City officials point towards hard work, but note there's more to do. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mayor of Newark Cory Booker about his city's recent accomplishment, joblessness, stimulus funds, and other issues.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This is the time of year that for many stands for freedom, rebirth and renewal. As millions prepare for Easter this Sunday, we will take a closer look at how orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday. Unusually, all Christians, orthodox, Catholics and protestants will observe Easter on the same weekend this year and we will try to explain why. That's our Faith Matters conversation and is coming up in just a few minutes.

But while we're at it, we're taking notes that the spirit of renewal is being felt today by residents of one of the nation's toughest cities. In March, Newark, New Jersey marked its first month without a single homicide in more than 40 years. That's quite a turnaround for a city that has been the butt of jokes and synonymous for many with crime and urban dysfunction.

Joining us now is the person at the center of that change, Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Democrat, Newark): Thank you so much. It's great to be back on.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

Mayor BOOKER: Thank you. It's a tremendous accomplishment and really is just what marks what we've accomplished this quarter. We're having the best crime statistics this quarter that we haven't really seen since 1941 and a lot of good people here in Newark coming together to some extraordinary things. I'm very grateful for that.

MARTIN: The obvious question is, why do you think this is? And it's worth noting that a lot of cities are seeing things there have been a number of major cities that have seen the crime rate, particularly the homicide rate fall, but a lot of them are starting to see it inch back up again. So, to what do you attribute the change?

Mayor BOOKER: Well, a lot of it has to do with what's happening in our police department and just changing strategies, becoming far more sophisticated in the way we go about it. We're investing in police. We're investing in technology. Cameras in communities. Sophisticated gunshot detection technology, not just going on doing buys and busts for gangs and narcotics, but doing really intensive surveillance, get the people who are actually distributing the drugs, packaging it and bringing it in.

But then you also have to give a lot of attention and light to just the residents of our city. As mayor, I've been so inspired by just leadership that's popping up all throughout our communities, forming block associations, tenant watches. Seeing people volunteer for night patrols along with police officers, and hundreds of our clergy get involved to drive around with our police.

Seeing, actually, residents do extraordinary things. Like, one of my favorite is a man who was a retired state worker who got a stimulus check in the mail, decided to buy a lawnmower because next to his building was a lot overgrown with weeds and grass that was being used by drug dealers to hide their stash and to do their business. And just went out there and started mowing the lawn, manicuring it, using his weed whacker and hedge clippers and making it look beautiful and eventually the drug dealers just left.

So, there's so many of these stories about a community coming together to say enough of this. Newark is not going to be known for crime and violence anymore. We're going to transform our city, change our reputation and get our pride back.

MARTIN: You know, it's been reported that when you - it's worth noting that this has been a priority of yours since you were elected in 2006. And there were even some who suggested that maybe you shouldn't talk about crime so much because you're setting yourself up for failure. Is that right?

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah, I was told by even some of the leading criminologists in the country that I was setting expectations too high, that I was putting myself too far out on a limb. And I'm just a big believer that our nation has been damned with low expectations for too long, and that we are a country that, if you look at our history, has a continuous testimony to the achievement of the impossible.

And so why can't we in Newark, if we're willing to do the things that other people don't do, why can't we get the results that other people aren't getting? And so I came out right away and said there's just an attitude we're going to have that's going to change.

And I began, in fact, the first week I stumbled upon a bank robber and me and the security detail I'm with had to chase him down and we used that as a moment of, let's make a big statement that this is not going to be allowed in our city anymore.

I drove around for the first year or so in office until 4 o'clock in the morning myself talking to police officers and engaging them, letting them know that I have their back, but I expected them to understand that they were the most important agents in our democracy because too many people in our country have resigned themselves that there'll be streets that won't be safe, neighborhoods that you shouldn't walk in in certain hours. And that to me is not the America I grew up to believe in. We are a country that the truth and the freedom and justice should ring throughout our country, not on just certain streets and certain towns.

So, we saw a lot of inspiration coming from around the city that began to raise people's expectations. And as we started getting results in the first two years, more and more people began lending hands and the momentum began to create many milestones, including the one we've enjoyed last month.

MARTIN: I just want to play, speaking of attitude, because you talk a lot about the attitude and there needs to be a culture of belief that things can happen. I just want to play a short clip from there was a 2008 documentary on Sundance Channel called "Brick City" that documented your efforts in this area. I'm just going to play a short clip of this is you talking to the police force. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Brick City")

Mayor BOOKER: They say that our police department is the best police department in the nation. But it is not enough for our citizens. I put it before you right now. I will not go through a summer like last year. June, seven murders. July, eight murders. August, ten murders. You all remember three of our college students. The best of the brick shot and murdered. We can stop this now.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: What you're talking about there was this awful story. There were three college students, a fourth young person grievously wounded just a week or so before they three college students who were killed and a fourth one of their friends who was very badly wounded just a week before they were all supposed to go back to school, it was a very traumatic event in the life of the city. And I'd like to, you know, ask you, do you think that people have was there something about that that might have been something of a turning point?

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah. I have to say that was the lowest point in my professional life when that happened. And it taught me a very important spiritual lesson personally that, as strong as we might be as individuals, we ultimately are very weak. But when we realize that it's not just about us and that we can lean on other people and that together we can manifest invincibility, then magic happens.

And it took, really, one of the darkest nights in Newark to certainly wake us up to the light we had within each of us. And people from that started doing things that were incredible. Foundation community in our city said, okay, enough is enough. Mayor, what can we invest in that will make a dramatic difference?

And we have this amazing public safety wireless network now hosting our cameras and gunshot detection paid for by private dollars. Clergy came forward and said, mayor, what more can we do? And we were able to up clergy patrols and even do innovative things. Because crime is not just about policing. In fact, police only treat the symptom of a deeper problem in our nation. And we have to start focusing on things like helping people when they come home from prison and we start a lot of innovative reentry programs for our residents. Helping kids with the first time they get in trouble. Don't just throw them in jail, and often criminalize them more, but use it as a point of intervention, and we started programs focusing on that.

So, that was - sometimes you have to reach the nadir before you can start climbing back to the zenith. And I'm just grateful in many ways that out of that tragedy we were able to begin to piece together what would be the triumphs that we're experiencing now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Cory Booker. He's the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, which has just marked the first month without a single homicide in more than 40 years.

To that, and you were talking about a lot of the programs and initiatives that you've put into place a few weeks ago, New Jersey's new governor Chris Christie announced that he has to slice almost $300 million in state aid to municipalities. That's a cut of more than 17 percent, and presumably Newark has to be profoundly affected by that.

Now, on the one hand, I would assume that you've gotten some federal stimulus dollars out of the economic stimulus package passed by this administration in the Congress. On the other hand, you've got to be losing some money from the state. Are you worried that this will put in jeopardy some of the things that you've put in motion?

Mayor BOOKER: You know, I'm not worried. First of all, it is a punishing, punishing reality. And my residents and I are going to have to deal with just the hard, cold facts of what's happening. And so maybe I should say I'm definitely worried, but I haven't lost hope. And, you know, first of all, I'm trying to get my residents not to indulge in the vilification of anyone. Don't vilify our governor. Don't vilify Republicans.

The reality is this horrible fiscal nightmare that we're in right now, we got here not because of the current actors, we've gotten here from lots of years of irresponsibility. And now that we're in this crisis, we need to recognize a very simple truth that a wise man spoke around the time that Newark, 44 years ago, that Newark had another month without a murder. And that is really the problem today is not the vitriolic words or evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.

Let me give you an example. We have found in a very measurable sense the impact that mentoring has in the lives of our kids. And we have in America right now 2.5 million children on waiting lists just for Big Brothers and Big Sister programs. And if you think about, that we know in Newark, that if a kid has a mentor, their chances of getting involved in criminality go way down, their performance in schools go way up. They're involved in an early child sexuality goes way down.

And we know that it only takes four hours a month, the amount of time that people watch "Dancing with the Stars" or maybe "Jersey Shore" here in New Jersey, can be invested in the life of a child and make a big change. So what we're trying to say, as the government rolls back in their resources, we have got to step up. And if we do, magic can happen, things that other people say are impossible. So, I'm not going to I'm not a person that gives up in the face of challenges. And we have a challenging fiscal environment right now.

This is the time that we need to redouble our efforts. And, again, to try to do the things that ultimately are going to create Newark's success. But I know that Newark's success is even more powerful than in many places because so many people don't believe in a city like ours. And what we're going to do in here in Newark is expand the moral consciousness of our country. And, again, have people believe that anything is possible in America.

MARTIN: And, finally, speaking of stepping up, you're running for reelection, are you committed to serving out your full term?

Mayor BOOKER: Yeah, absolutely. I've learned now in the first four years that one of the best contributions I can make to the community that I love, and even beyond, is by continuing to do the kind of job with other people that we're doing in Newark. And a lot of things that we've now started to show progress on, I want to get across the finish line. And it's at least going to take another four years to do that. So, I'm in the fight and I'm hoping that the residents of this city will give me four more years.

MARTIN: I should have said, assuming you're reelected, you're committed to serving a full term. The Obama administration couldn't entice you down to Washington?

Mayor BOOKER: They definitely sent out feelers to me that were very flattering. But let me just tell you, yesterday, I talked to the first lady, I talked to Eric Holder, I talked to Valerie Jarrett in one day. And the White House has been extraordinarily supportive of what I'm doing. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the Obama administration because they care about the granular things that make people's lives better.

And the first lady and I are working on, along with Senator Frist on the Republican side, are working on this national obesity campaign. He and I are (unintelligible).

MARTIN: All right, we have to leave it there for now. We hope you'll come back and see us. Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He joined us by phone from his office. Mr. Mayor, thank you.

Mayor BOOKER: Thank you very much.

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