RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a similar kind of sentiment across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. The murder rate is down in the city, but the new mayor there says it is just a small step in a very long effort to make Newark a safer place to live.
Ras Baraka took office this past July. I spoke with him recently about the unconventional tactics he's using to heal a city he says is in a state of emergency.
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Let me just say that Newark does not have a monopoly on this issue. I think that every major city in America is struggling to get crime under control. We are not just targeting the one percent of folks that are doing the most violent crimes. What we want to do is attack the area, the place that helps become incubator for crime. So we're talking about improving people's environment.
MARTIN: After less than six months in office, you did something fairly unusual. You reached out to gang members in Newark and had a meeting with them; many of these gang members who had been responsible for much of the violence in Newark. Where was the meeting held?
BARAKA: Bethany Baptist Church. We chose a place kind of neutral and assessed the kind of cultural tone that if you want help, there's help available.
MARTIN: What was the public response? I mean, just members of the community were also invited, right?
BARAKA: A few members, you know, people who were really, like, doing activist work, antiviolence work. Folks like that, kind of ministers. And we had some of the victims of violence actually speak to them; a father who lost his son, who was a pizza delivery boy in the city of Newark who was robbed and killed. He spoke to them very frankly about losing his child and what it meant and how it felt to him and the kind of havoc that they're reeking on people's neighborhoods and families.
MARTIN: I understand probably a lot of that was shared in confidence, but can you talk a little bit about what those conversations were like? What did the gang members talk about as their concerns?
BARAKA: I mean, most people are looking for jobs, right, so they're looking for opportunities to be employed. They're looking for opportunities for meaningful employment. Like, people don't come to City Hall and say mayor, I need money or, mayor, I need welfare, which is what the prevailing opinion might be.
But the reality is, people - when I see people, they say I need a job. And they understand they got involved in some of these things at a very young age. And they made criminal life a career. They're trying to break that cycle, and unfortunately, they can't break it on their own. They need to be let know frankly that we know who you are. And if you continue on this path to violence, either you're going to die or we're going to arrest you. But ultimately, this is not what we want.
MARTIN: That meeting was in October. But then several weeks after that meeting, you described a recent spike in violent crime as a state of emergency. How much did you accomplish? Do you have to just fight this problem in the long run, or do you feel like you're making inroads in the short-term?
BARAKA: I think we're making great inroads. I wish there was one meeting that we could have and make violence go away. We could take that on the road. Ultimately, even though we have reduced murders in the city - 30 percent, carjacking's 50 percent. You know, we reduced a lot of it. We still are not out of the woods. And that's why I don't go around cheerleading those statistics because any time when you have anywhere between 80 to 100 African-American, Latino boys being killed in a community by homicide, then it's important for people to look at that as an epidemic.
MARTIN: We are talking as there is a national debate happening right now about police brutality and the relationship that communities have with their police departments. Just this past summer, the U.S. Justice Department wrapped up a three-year investigation of the Newark Police Department and found a pattern of what they called unjustified and excessive force. What have you done to change that?
BARAKA: We've moved internal affairs from the separate building. We brought them down into City Hall. We gave them longer hours. We have already put over 90 percent of our police in training - retraining. And we're also getting ready to establish a civilian police review board.
We welcome the kind of reforms that the Department of Justice said needs to happen here in the city of Newark around the police department, around the policing in the city. We believe that a police department that's more efficient, less corrupt will have a better agency that's able to solve the crimes in our city and to help us reduce violence in the community.
MARTIN: Just next-door in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is in a pretty tense standoff with police right now over this issue - aggressive policing tactics. What do you see when you look at that situation?
BARAKA: Well, let me just say that all of these things that are happening are part and parcel of the way people view black and Latino males in these neighborhoods, poor people in these communities. It's not just germane to police. I think police have a direct contact with folks every day. And all these kind of ideas are systematized in the way people are policing in these neighborhoods, in these communities. And it needs to be addressed, right, so I think that, unfairly, the mayor of the city was attached to heinous and brutal kind of crime.
MARTIN: We're talking about the murder of those two police officers?
BARAKA: Right. When people say black lives matter, if you take offense, and I think some people take offense to people saying black lives matter, and I think that that in and of itself is a deeper issue that people need to work out with themselves. It's just like if you saying black lives matter, it doesn't mean that you have no respect for other people's life.
What it means is that you want black people to have justice in the community just like everybody else. And I think what Mayor de Blasio did was right that he spoke out against the violence committed against those police officers, and he should have. And he should have questions the killing of Eric Garner by an illegal chokehold.
MARTIN: You have been able to decrease certain violent crime rates recently. But you don't want to hail those as any kind of big victory. So I wonder what you look to personally as a metric of success.
BARAKA: Well, I would like the people in the neighborhood, when you talk to them, if they feel safe, if they feel that the police are doing their job. Like, so we've targeted two neighborhoods in the city - Clinton Hill, lower Clinton Hill, is one of them, and the lower West Ward is another neighborhood that we are working - beginning to do some work in heavily. And as the year moves, we're going to increase the intensity of work that's going on in those two neighborhoods.
And it doesn't mean that all crime in the neighborhood is going to disappear. What it does mean, however, is that we've got a handle over what's happening in that community. And if people report to us that they feel safer six months later than they did when we first started, then I would look at that as a victory.
MARTIN: Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey. Thanks so much for talking with us Mr. Mayor.
BARAKA: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.