Booker in his office at City Hall.
Meanwhile, Cory Booker was trying tactics of his own. Alerted via e-mail every time there was a shooting, and frantic to avoid another one, he started hitting the hoops court at midnight to help keep kids busy and out of harm's way. Then, despite fierce resistance from McCarthy, as well as Booker's own parents, he began going out on night patrols in cruisers with cops, rolling up to shady characters and initiating come-to-Jesus conversations about what they were doing with their lives. The foolhardy gambit had its impact: Booker's dedication started to rub off on the department.
More orthodox strategies have included what's known as the broken windows theory—the idea that attention to basic quality-of-life issues can ultimately help avert serious crimes, as when two policemen stopped a guy drinking a beer on the corner, then discovered he was carrying two guns. When they brought him to the precinct and ran his name through the database, they found out he'd just been released from prison for shooting someone six years earlier on that very corner. "If those cops had driven past the guy, we probably would have had a homicide that night," McCarthy notes. On the other end of the process, Booker has tried to find ways to short-circuit the farcical arrest-release-rearrest-rerelease cycle by encouraging ex-offenders get a foothold once they're out—launching the Fatherhood Center, which helps men who want to be better dads, as well as partnering with the legal community to create the nation's first pro bono legal service for ex-cons.
Overall, McCarthy is getting results: Murders are down 29 percent since Booker took office, and 2010 saw an almost festive-sounding "murder-free March," the first such month in Newark in more than 40 years. But there have been setbacks. Lord, have there been setbacks.
On a languid night in August 2007, four good kids—two female and two male, bound for college in the fall at Delaware State University—were hanging out at a local schoolyard when six thugs, looking to prove their gang mettle, attacked. Both women were slashed with a machete, and all four students were shot in the head (unimaginably, one survived, escaping a beheading because the machete blade was too dull). The city reeled. Even for Newark, it was a crime too heinous to bear.
But then something remarkable happened. Newark wasn't beaten down by the murders—it was outraged, incensed, galvanized. "That completely flipped over the table," says McCarthy. "Immediately, I saw that the investigators and agency were responding as they should. They were working the investigation, talking to people, putting together the events. There was overwhelming pressure to solve this case, to do it quickly and do it adequately in the middle of three funerals throughout the city. It was a very emotional time for us all—some of the images from those funerals will be with me forever. I kind of feel it was an event that cemented the city, in a way." With a big assist from United States marshals and the FBI, the Newark police department tracked down all six killers, one as far away as Virginia, within 13 days while the nation watched. As a result, funding started pouring in for gunshot detection technology and more than 700 surveillance cameras, now trained on hot spots throughout the city, that could drastically alter the crime picture in Newark.
The most amazing thing of all: Worn out by the stress, vulnerable, succumbing to strep and flu for the first time in two decades, the mayor began to realize he couldn't do this job alone—couldn't be everywhere at once, couldn't personally body-block every bullet. That it is a wonderful thing to be heroic, anointed, called—but the job of turning around Newark is bigger than one man, even if that man is Cory Booker. Knowing this has made him stronger.
Next: A brighter future