By David Jones
NEWARK N.J. (Reuters) - Federal investigators found police repeatedly violated civil rights in New Jersey's largest city, Newark, and recommended an independent monitor to oversee changes, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Tuesday.
The city has agreed to accept the findings of the DOJ probe, which has been under way since 2011 and suggested ways to stop the "pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing by the Newark Police Department," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement.
Specifically, the report said, police violated rights through stop-and-arrest practices that disproportionately targeted blacks, use of force, stealing property and cracking down on people who lawfully objected to police behavior.
"Today the city of Newark has taken a bold step toward ensuring constitutional policing that better serves all of Newark's residents," Jocelyn Samuels, the DOJ's acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in the statement.
"The agreement in principle provides a roadmap for reform and underscores the shared determination of the city of Newark and the Department of Justice to making this reform real and sustainable," she said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has said he would accept the rare but not unprecedented move of appointing a monitor, which had been opposed by his predecessor, Cory Booker, who is now a U.S. senator.
Most recently, a monitor was appointed in Oakland, California, in 2012.
Just eight miles from Manhattan, Newark - once a thriving manufacturing center for leather, celluloid and light bulbs - has worked to overcome its image of urban blight and high crime.
The DOJ investigation uncovered a practice of stopping suspects without sufficient justification in nearly 75 percent of pedestrian cases. It also found police disproportionately targeted blacks, who accounted for 85 percent of pedestrian stops and 79 percent of arrests yet are roughly 54 percent of Newark's population.
Police also violated citizens' First Amendment rights by detaining and arresting people who lawfully objected to police actions or behaved in a way that officers perceived as disrepectful.
Excessive force also was cited in the report. More than 20 percent of Newark police officers reported use of force that appeared unreasonable, authorities said.
Finally, the report found theft of citizens' property by officers was rampant, particularly by officers from narcotics and gang units as well as in the prisoner processing unit.
Under the monitor's watch, the Newark Police Department will "develop and implement improvements to its stop, arrest and force policies and procedures, and train its officers on how to conduct effective and constitutional policing," the U.S. Attorney's office said in the statement.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jim Loney)