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FRONTLINE: Policing The Police

Airs Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

A Newark policeman. FRONTLINE goes inside the Newark Police Department — one ...

Credit: Courtesy of FRONTLINE

Above: A Newark policeman. FRONTLINE goes inside the Newark Police Department — one of many troubled forces in America ordered to reform. Writer and historian Jelani Cobb examines allegations of police abuses and the challenge of fixing a broken relationship with the community.

Michael Brown in Ferguson. Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Eric Garner in New York City. Over the past several years, the deaths of unarmed black men like these at the hands of police officers have sparked a national debate about race, policing and civil rights, with the Department of Justice (DOJ) stepping in to mandate reform at several troubled police forces.

Now, in a new documentary called “Policing The Police,” FRONTLINE and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb take viewers on a rare, up-close journey inside one police department that’s been ordered to change its ways: the force in Newark, New Jersey.

“Since the 1967 riots that erupted after the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers, the Newark Police Department has been haunted by allegations of discriminatory policing, excessive use of force, and a severe lack of accountability,” says Cobb, a historian at Columbia Journalism School who has written about issues of race and policing for The New Yorker for years.

After a three-year investigation, the DOJ found systemic civil rights abuses by the Newark police, noting that approximately 75 percent of stops by officers had no legal justification. The DOJ also found cases where police used excessive force against residents, stole their belongings, and arrested people for criticizing or questioning their actions — and it ordered Newark to reform.

With gripping, on-the-ground access, “Policing The Police” gives viewers a raw and complex look at the challenge of changing how cops operate in a place like Newark: a poor city plagued by violent crime, where the victims and the perpetrators are usually black, and the police force itself is largely black and Latino.

The documentary examines the difficulties of fixing a broken relationship with the community after decades of mutual mistrust — from riding along with officers as they conduct “field inquiries” (a practice that was the focus of much of the DOJ’s investigation), to talking with community members themselves, to showing tense internal meetings with top city and police officials. The film also includes candid scenes and interviews with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a former activist who went to college with Cobb, and is now trying to shake up the department from the inside.

“Is it possible to make impoverished, crime-ridden communities safe while still respecting people’s constitutional rights?” Cobb asks. Explore that question in “Policing The Police” — a nuanced glimpse into how topics in the national discussion about race and policing are playing out every day on the streets of Newark, in community members’ homes, and in the city's police precincts. Building on FRONTLINE’s extensive reporting on the effectiveness of the DOJ’s earlier police reform efforts, the film is a must-watch look inside a police force in transition, and a powerful case study in the broader debate over policing in America.

This is a FRONTLINE production with Left/Right Docs. The correspondent is Jelani Cobb. The producers are James Jacoby and Anya Bourg. The writers are James Jacoby & Jelani Cobb. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producers for Left/Right Docs are Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

Follow Jelani Cobb @jelani9 on Twitter.

Past episodes of FRONTLINE are available for online viewing. FRONTLINE is on Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, and you can follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter.

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