(NEWARK, N.J.) -- It's the most populous city in New Jersey with over 280,000 residents and regarded as one of its most dangerous. Crime has plagued the city for decades and in 1986, there were more than 40,000 index crimes, a trend that would continue into the 1990s. Meanwhile, through the early to mid-90s, each year, about 10,000 of those crimes were violent, according to New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Reports. But Newark is trending downward, in a positive way, about 30 years later following those peak numbers.
Ras Baraka was elected as Newark's mayor in 2014 and taking over at a time when the city saw 112 murders the previous year, the most in 24 years. In addition to an increasing murder rate, the U.S. Justice Department issued a 49-page report of an investigation that began in May 2011, into abuse and misconduct within the Newark Police Department, just weeks after Baraka took office.
A DOJ press release stated that "NPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft by officers in violation of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments." The DOJ said the practices of officers in Newark also "had a disparate impact on minorities in Newark."
Perhaps the most infamous case of civil unrest fueled by racial disparities in policing came in 1967. There were five days of unrest, known as the "Newark rebellion," after police pulled over John William Smith, a black cab driver, removed him from his car, beat him and then arrested him. As a result, more than two dozen people were killed, thousands were either injured or arrested, and millions of dollars were tallied in property damage.
Almost half a century later, in 2016, the city of Newark and the DOJ came to a consent decree to reform its police department. With the agreement, comprehensive reforms were expected to include the use of in-car and body-worn cameras, de-escalation techniques and a civilian oversight entity to help address the concerns of residents, among other areas.
Before the agreement with the DOJ, however, Baraka had already begun taking steps to help improve the city's issues through a community outreach strategy, dubbed the Newark Community Street Team. Aqeela Sherrills, a Los Angeles native, was tasked with leading the new program due to his work in his own community.
"He knew about the work that we had done in L.A. and also in other cities across the country," Sherrill told ABC News. "He tapped me to come and build out the infrastructure for his community-based public safety initiative." In 1992, Sherrills helped organize a peace treaty between Blood and Crip gang members in the Watts neighborhood of L.A.
The NCST is primarily funded through grants, funds from the city, and with the help from investors like the Victoria Foundation.
In 2016, Baraka created the Department of Public Safety by merging Police, Fire and the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, in an effort to simplify operations and reduce costs. Anthony Ambrose, a former Newark police officer before rising through the ranks to chief of detectives for the Essex County Prosecutors Office, was appointed the director of the newly created department before his retirement in March. Brian O'Hara, who previously served as Newark's deputy police chief, took over following Ambrose's retirement.
"Baraka came in… with a reformed mentality. He understood violence as a public health issue," Sherrills said. "When he was on the city council, he advanced that framework, and so when he became mayor… folks knew that he would be coming in to clean house."
"The sacred Rural Council was a body that he commissioned to basically coordinate public safety strategies in the city, that not only just with law enforcement at the table, but also with faith community-based organizations…other municipal agencies, because he understood that it was an ecosystem of services that actually reduce violence and crime, as opposed to just law enforcement," Sherrills continued.
Since the city saw over 3,200 violent crimes in 2015, Newark has seen those numbers decrease every year since, to a low of less than 1,500 violent incidents in 2020. Due to police reforms stemming from the consent decree, not a single gunshot was fired by police officers in Newark last year. Overall crime has also dipped every year since 2016, nearly 500 guns were taken off the streets of Newark in 2020, and more than 270 recovered to-date in 2021, according to local officials.
"I think that is one of the factors that provided a vehicle to try and, you know, move some of these reforms forward that had been happening, at least begun to happen on a community level and begun through our mayor in the city. And just provided like sort of like the backing to ensure that the appropriate investments were made in these areas to focus around reform," O'Hara told ABC News. "There was significant efforts around community engagement that had been going on here in the last few years."
In 2019, rape was down 13%, shooting victims down 14%, and homicides were down 26%, seeing its lowest number of murders since 1961. Baraka praised these numbers at the time, while ensuring the troubled areas are also being policed effectively, "There's always this idea that the police are not working in those areas and allowing things to happen, they only protect downtown. Well, these numbers prove that to be false."
However, Sherrills said it's important to remember the role that the NCST has played in crime reduction. The trained outreach workers are members of the community who provide mentoring for people aged 14-30 years old, life management skills, as well as a high-risk intervention team to help those people avoid incarceration by connecting them with counseling and more.
"I can't discount man, the community-based effort, pulling public safety out of the abstract and putting it into the hands of the people," Sherrills told ABC News.
The NCST also provides what's called "Safe Passage," deploying its outreach workers to schools where violence is considered more common, and step-in if they see a conflict brewing. This also allows the outreach workers to build up a rapport with kids and their parents.
While Public Safety Director Brian O'Hara agrees with Sherrills, he also believes the work isn't done, "I would not be talking about 2020. That's ancient history at this point." O'Hara would go on to tell ABC News, " We need to invest in certain communities, where there's concentrated poverty, we need to invest in education, we need to invest in folks with jobs and invest in social services, invest in different ways of addressing cycles of retaliatory violence, social workers and those types of things."
This story is part of the series Gun Violence in America by ABC News Radio. Each day this week we're exploring a different topic, from what we mean when we say "gun violence" – it's not just mass shootings – to what can be done about it. You can hear an extended version of each report as an episode of the ABC News Radio Specials podcast. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.