NEWARK, N.J.—If Garry McCarthy had a honeymoon as Newark's top cop it ended violently on a single day in July 2009.
On July 20 of that year, eight people were shot in two separate incidents, including a drive-by shooting that indiscriminately took the life of a mother of two who was walking back to her apartment from the grocery store.
After Newark Mayor Cory Booker hired McCarthy away from the NYPD in 2006, he had enjoyed two years of positive publicity as murders in the notoriously violent and impoverished city dropped by 30 percent between 2007 and 2008.McCarthy has benefited from Booker's celebrity status, including regular appearances in the "Brick City" television documentary series.
But McCarthy's last couple of years here have been a slog. He's battled to keep violent crime as flat as possible, while the budget cuts of 167 officers have left the force at roughly 1,000. The murder of that mother of two, Nakisha Allen, was the catalyst for a series of ongoing demonstrations in the city in which activists and some politicians began calling for McCarthy's resignation.
"It's been a challenge," McCarthy said, acknowledging diminishing resources had changed the tone of his tenure in Newark..
But as McCarthy prepares to become the Chicago Police Department's next superintendent, his reputation in Newark as a crime fighter and administrator remains strong. He has been credited with increasing the professionalism and skill of the police department, while negotiating a thorny political landscape with the thick skin that he developed in decades of climbing the ranks of New York's top brass.
"Over the years, through some very tough times, Garry has not only become a highly valued director on my team but also a friend," Booker said Monday after Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel announced McCarthy's selection. "He has been a great servant to our city."
But some feel McCarthy is getting out of town at the right time as the police department's resources continue to dwindle and the city's dismal social conditions show no signs of real improvement.
McCarthy came highly recommended to Emanuel by a host of nationally known law enforcement officials, but none more influential than William Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and commissioner of the NYPD, where he promoted McCarthy to precinct commander in the 1990s.
"He stood out among the crowd, and it was an outstanding crowd. There was a lot of talent in the New York Police Department," Bratton said. "He projects confidence. He's smart, articulate, assertive. And he's not afraid to stick his neck out."
People who have known McCarthy over the years consistently painted him as a deft handler of big-city politics. Bratton noted McCarthy maintained his pressure-cooker job as the department's top anti-crime strategist through three subsequent police commissioners.
"To survive in such a significant position, which is a lynchpin of (department operations) is a reflection of his strength," Bratton said.
Chicago will be a whole new ballgame, said Bratton, who knows Chicago's police landscape well through longstanding ties to top brass here. The size and entrenchment of the street gangs in Chicago "will be much bigger than anything he's dealt with in New York or Newark," Bratton said, and the politics of the moment will be a new test of McCarthy's skills, as well.
"In Chicago, you have a very racially conscious city and a new mayor who has not been tested," Bratton said. "Its crime problem has been improving but the perception of it, and fear of it, has been increasing."
McCarthy's critics in Newark said the opposite was true—that the police director and his mayor created a perception they had made the city safer, while people who live in the most dangerous neighborhoods were having a very different experience.
"Mayor Booker and Director McCarthy have done a fabulous PR job. Because everybody around the world thinks they're doing a great job," said Bashir Akinyele, spokesman for a coalition of anti-violence groups. "But if you come to Newark, that's not what people will say."
Protesters have focused on racial tension in the city. Newark is more than half African-American, with a large population of Hispanics. Akinyele said minority communities have felt McCarthy, as well as Booker, who is African-American, have been more accessible to the white community.
"He had an arrogant way of treating the people of the city of Newark," Akinyele said.