NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has begun enacting drastic measures to fight crime.

As CBS 2’s Christine Sloan reported Thursday, Baraka said he is so desperate to curb the violence in Newark that he is going straight to the source – the criminals themselves.

It has been a violent year in Newark. In March, Velma Cuttino, 43, was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight as she sat in her car while stopped at an intersection.

In June, someone shot 16-year-old teenager Cheyanne Bond on a sidewalk for her iPhone. She was killed two weeks after she graduated high school.

And in August, store owner Jose Rivas was kidnapped as he opened his supermarket, and later shot to death.

On Thursday, Mayor Baraka invited criminals, gang members, and police to a church in Newark looking for ways to prevent such crimes. CBS 2’s Sloan was there exclusively.

During the meeting, dozens of police officers with high-powered weapons stood outside the Bethany Baptist Church, as Baraka sat inside meeting with those who have chosen a life of crime.

“We pick certain segments of the city in a neighborhood, and we talk to gang members, and we talk to people on parole, and we let them and help them understand that there’s alternatives for them. They can give up the lifestyle of committing crime,” said Newark police Director Eugene Venable.

Police officers did not go into the church during the meeting. It was all part of a deal in which the only security personnel allowed inside were members of the Nation of Islam.

CBS 2 cameras were also kept out, and the mayor chose not to talk with CBS 2. His police director said he did not want to turn a sensitive issue into a publicity stunt.

Venable also said the meeting did not amount to catering to criminals, as critics may say.

“No, no, no, we have to reach out to people. People have to have an opportunity to improve their lives. Someone has to do it,” Venable said. If we take no action now, then things will not get better.”

Gang members did not want their faces on camera, but some did speak to CBS 2.

“Gangs is a part of life. You are in Newark, New Jersey,” one man said.

Some of the gang members said they were in tears listening to Mayor Baraka, and they said the event may just help them turn their lives around.

“If you sat there through the whole thing, and you listened to everything the man had to say, if it didn’t touch you then your soul gone, because he touched — he got down to the inside,” one gang member said. “He made me want to do something different with myself.”

While police said crime is down, Newark is still a city under siege. The city has had 74 murders this year, compared to 249 in New York City with about 30 times the population.

“I think it needs to stop,” said Kadijah Fuentes, who works in Newark.

The police director is convinced that what he has dubbed a “community call-in” will cut down on the violence, because he said it is working in other cities such as Baltimore.

Those on parole and probation were required to attend the event as part of their re-entry program.

You May Also Be Interested In These Stories