Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Brick City"

Last night we watched the first episode of a new documentary from the Sundance Channel, "Brick City,"about fighting crime in Newark, N.J. produced by Forest Whitaker (available in the free movies on demand section for Time Warner subscribers).

It had been billed as Newark meets The Wire, though it's not living up to that yet. An extraordinary portion of the first episode was spent on an earnest if somewhat dreary hagiography of Mayor Cory Booker and setting up characters in a familial drama that emerged at the end of the hour. Perhaps down the line the series will get me to the thing that actually drew me to it - the Newark police director Garry McCarthy's reportedly successful use of more pro-active, data-driven policing as opposed to primarily reacting to calls. Only references to this in part one, but little detail.

There were brief hints -in total probably fewer than two minutes of air time - of difficulties faced by the chief in getting his officers to shift to the new approach. Scenes of managers struggling to understand what it means not to merely report data but to "analyze" and understand its implications. Another telling, brief scene (my pals over at CLEAT would probably be yelling at the screen) showed McCarthy intervening to stop a fired police officer from speaking to the Mayor at a public event. But overall the episode substituted rousing speeches by Booker for any real examination of the controversies that arose in the execution of McCarthy's new approach.

For example, implementation of public surveillance cameras usually is controversial. But the episode examined that controversy by filming a youth forum led and controlled by Booker, who seemed to treat the differences of opinion as a high school debate exercise, congratulating all for a good job at the end. Even with that soft-pedaled approach, about half the room raised their hands to say they didn't like the surveillance cameras.

We did learn a few interesting tidbits about what Newark does with its cameras. In most places where they employ public CCTV - as in London where they have thousands of cameras everywhere in the city - they're either tape-only or occasionally you'll see a smaller number (as in Dalllas) staffed with volunteers. Newark put up just 109 cameras, and their monitoring was staffed by on-duty officers. These hotspot locations were apparently aimed at turf-war zones in an ongoing Crips/Bloods feud about which presumably future episodes will focus.

While Booker and McCarthy credited the cameras with a reduction in murders - and sure enough, they captured some murders on tape - you couldn't identify anyone from the grainy pictures, so the primary benefit seemed to be the ability to immediately dispatch officers. Still, they may be squeezing the maximum effectiveness out of the tactic compared to many other places they're used.

Don't know if we'll watch the rest of the five part series - Kathy agreed the Cory Booker hagiography was pretty over the top and we both thought it needed much tighter editing - but perhaps future episodes tell more about what the police director is doing differently on the ground. Part one was a little like the Mayor's audition tape for "The Bachelor," or perhaps more accurately for New Jersey Governor or Senator, one suspects.


Anonymous said...

I just finished watching the five-part series. As a big fan of "The Wire" about halfway through the first episode I saw how this was supposed to be real-life version of the series. Unfortunately, the producers fell short of that hope.

As Grits pointed out, it became even more obvious in the second episode that the most interesting aspect of the series, a dramatic decrease in the murder rate and how that came about, wasn't going to be given more than a few brief moments throughout. That story was over-shadowed by the producers and director deciding they wanted to mostly make the series a campaign ad for the next Obama. His name is Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark.

I was also unimpressed with the other major storyline they decided to follow, that of Jayda. This former juvenile delinquent gang member that we're supposed to believe is changing the lives of a small group of young girls she's claiming to mentor. However, what I saw was totally opposite of what the producers were trying to sell...a young woman claiming her desire to mentor girls from choosing the wrong friends and respecting themselves, doing none of that for herself.

We see Jayda, giving speeches to these small groups of girls, from her neighborhood and one a relative about how they need to become strong women and fight back the urges to make bad decisions. However, in the next scene she's attending Bloods reunions, throwing gang signs and declaring her forever loyalty to her gang. Besides being pregnant, the other drama going on in her life is her current legal problems. She's trying to get the best deal she can on an Agg. Assault charge. She had beaten another woman so badly that she was left with permanent scaring on her face and missing teeth. Apparently, when the offense occurred 4 years prior (she was an adult at the time), she ran to another state and had just recently returned to Newark assuming (wrongly) that the statute of limitations had run. Of course, she finds out the US Marshals are looking for her. All kinds of screen time was given to her bemoaning that the victim was just being a big pain in her ass for not wanting to drop the charges, and crying about having to possibly do prison time while she's pregnant. Afterall, can't everyone see that she's changed her life!?

She eventually got a deal. Plea to the felony assault and 3 years probation, but no prison time. I read the little blurb at the end of the last scene that stated she had been given a start-up grant for her mentoring program. All I could think was this is the best they can do in finding someone to run a mentoring program with GRANT money? An active Blood gang member, "married" to a CRIP (that part of the story was touted as being some screwed up version of Romeo and Juliet), pregnant, bitching about being held accountable for an outstanding charge for Agg. Assault and proudly announcing her allegiance to her gang. Really? That's what the producers and director believed to be a success story?

To bad they missed the opportunity to possibly focus on one huge aspect of changing any community...the ability to successfully decrease crime.

PirateFriedman said...

I saw the documentary "Street Fight" about Booker's loss to Sharpe James. Newark looks like a total shithole.