1999 the year in review:
Policing presents an unflattering profile
It began early in the year as revelations about the practices of New Jersey State Police troopers and the disproportionate number of minority drivers pulled over for traffic stops on the states highways, and quickly led to questions about the patrol practices of law enforcement agencies nationwide. As fast as anyone could say racial profiling, police agencies and organizations knew they had a problem on their hands even if they believed it was one of public perception and not of fact.
Although complaints about troopers penchant for picking on black motorists had been circulating for at least a year, the heat was turned up after an April 1998 incident in which four unarmed minority men were wounded by two white troopers who fired at their van on the New Jersey Turnpike. In February, following months of legal wrangling, New Jersey officials released State Police documents showing that nearly two-thirds of the 109 arrests made during the first two months of 1997 were of African Americans. The arrest rate of black motorists, in fact, was higher during that period than the overall arrest rate for that year in the state. African Americans were arrested for 41 percent of all crimes, according to state records.
The agency tried to put the best possible spin on the documents, claiming that nearly all the arrests ended in convictions. John Hagerty, an NJSP spokesman, pointed out that defendants in those cases were sentenced to more than 105 years in jail and that 7.5 pounds of cocaine, 147 pounds of marijuana, and 22 grams of heroin were confiscated. Certainly the superintendent does not condone racial profiling, he said. Racial profiling is not part of any troopers training. Still, officials could not shake the contention of civil libertarians and other activists that blacks were being targeted on the states highways.
Then, in what can be described most charitably as extremely poor timing, the State Police Superintendent, Col. Carl A. Williams, made remarks to The Newark Star-Ledger in which he linked particular ethnic groups with certain types of crimes specifically, marijuana and cocaine offenses. The article hit newsstands and immediately generated a new firestorm of controversy, one that the 58-year-old Williams tried, unsuccessfully, to ride out. On Feb. 28, Williams was fired by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who had appointed him in 1994. His dismissal was hailed by black state legislators, religious leaders and civil rights advocates as a step in the right direction.
Whitman and state Attorney General Peter Verniero continued to deny the existence of racial profiling in the NJSP for months, but in April the state was forced to accept a consent decree in lieu of a Federal civil rights lawsuit. Findings from a two-year investigation by the Justice Department of racial profiling by State Police along a stretch of the turnpike and in two NJSP barracks closely paralleled those from a two-month study of the same area by the Vernieros office.
Verniero received a letter on April 26 informing him and Whitman that the Justice Departments Civil Rights Division had uncovered enough evidence of troopers stopping and searching minority motorists to justify a lawsuit against the State Police. Although details from the Federal probe were not divulged, the states report found that of the 87,489 motorists stopped along the turnpike by troopers from the Moorestown and Cranbury barracks during the 20-month period ending February 1999, 59.4 percent were white, 27 percent black, and the rest Hispanic, Asian and other. But when it came to cars being searched, the number of vehicles found to be driven by blacks or Hispanics shot up to an astonishing 77.2 percent, with whites making up just 24.1 percent of the total.
Also, the report found that 62 percent of those charged as a result of stops were black.
To see numbers that indicate that a full 77 percent or more of those asked to consent to a search of their vehicles during a stop are minorities is extremely disturbing, said Whitman. It is not something that any of us had any reason to anticipate, because they are numbers that none of us had seen before.
On the same day that the reports were released, Verniero announced the state would drop its appeal of a 1996 State Superior Court decision in Gloucester County, in which Judge Robert E. Francis ruled that troopers patrolling a southern section of the turnpike must have engaged in profiling because defense lawyers showed that 35 percent of traffic stops involved blacks, although they make up just 13.5 percent of all drivers. As a result of the ruling, charges were dismissed against 17 black defendants and the door was opened for dozens of others to try to have their charges dismissed on similar grounds.
As the racial profiling scandal in the NJSP continued to unfold through the spring, state and Federal officials, along with a handful of municipal leaders, put the practices of law enforcement agencies under a microscope in the hopes of rooting out racial profiling or tempering the publics perception of it.
Attorney General Janet Reno in April came out strongly for gathering racial background information during traffic stops. It was a stand that promptly put Reno at odds with the majority of law enforcement groups, which strongly oppose such enforced data-collection measures. Organizations including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations took aim at Federal legislation sponsored by Representative John Conyers (D.-Mich.). Conyerss bill, the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act of 1999, would require police to collect racial data on motorists stopped for traffic violations for analysis by the Justice Department to see if minorities are being targeted by law enforcement as part of routine patrols.
Chief Ronald S. Neubauer of St. Peters, Mo., the IACPs president, said Conyerss bill could easily be circumvented by erroneous or non-reports filed by biased officers. This can lead to jeopardizing officer safety and to offending motorists, he said. The cost, practicality, and problems inherent in collecting and distributing data were also of concern.
That is not to say that the IACP objected per se to data collection during highway stops. A 1998 report by the groups Highway Safety Committee recommended Federal funding for state and local data bases, as well as the establishment of a Voluntary National Traffic Stops Clearinghouse for Law Enforcement Agencies. With incentive grants, law enforcement agencies would be able to pool data they gathered and forward it to a clearinghouse to satisfy the needs of a variety of research and evaluation projects.
Law enforcement in general clung to steadfast denials that racial profiling was taking place, but state and Federal lawmakers some of whom had been stopped by police themselves at some point in their lives were not about to let the issue go.
Representatives Jose E. Serrano (D.-N.Y.) and Henry J. Hyde (R.-Ill.) sponsored legislation in May that called for the creation of a five-member panel to examine such topics as community relations, arrest procedures, handcuffing and verbal communications. The panel would also examine the police code of silence, the handling of civilian complaints, and recruitment and hiring practices. Most major police organizations took a dim view of the bill. If someone is talking about giving money to police agencies, to talk about important topics like training and accountability, we dont oppose that notion PERF certainly doesnt oppose research, said Arlington, Va., Chief Edward Flynn, who is legislative chairman of the Police Executive Research Forum. But we think the bill as currently crafted is very broad, very vague and has not allotted itself either the resources or time that the subject deserves.
Pennsylvania state Representative Harold James, a Philadelphia Democrat, proposed requiring the states Attorney General to compile data giving a breakdown of all traffic stops. At least four of the 10 members of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee, who convened hearings in June to lay the groundwork for the bill, described being singled out themselves by police because they were black or Hispanic.
In Connecticut, the state chiefs association and legislators worked together to craft a bill that would rely on officers perception of a drivers race or ethnicity to track the number of minorities stopped. The bill, originally required officers to elicit information by asking the driver questions. The proposal was strongly opposed by the states law enforcement establishment, which deemed it intrusive and offensive to the public and contended that it would jeopardize officer safety.
The North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety in April announced a study of the Highway Patrol. The research came in response to proposed legislation aimed at determining whether state troopers target minority drivers. Troopers with notebook computers in their patrol cruisers will take note of the race and sex of every driver they stop.
Not all jurisdictions have had to be pressured into collecting traffic-stop data. Before stepping down early in the year, San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders proposed a plan to track the race, sex and age of every motorist pulled over to ensure that bias was not playing a role in officers decisions. The concept is similar to one that was expected to be implemented voluntarily in San Jose. Chief Bill Lansdowne, whose initiative was praised by California lawmakers and civil libertarians, said the information collected would be entered into cruisers computer terminals, eventually giving officials the ability to assess whether there is a pattern of racial profiling or other discrimination. If so, Lansdowne said steps will be taken to change the way we do business.
Another proponent of data collection was former Portland, Ore., Police Chief Charles Moose, who recently became chief in Montgomery County, Md. Moose and 20 other police executives from the Portland area drafted a policy statement asking that the states police agencies adopt non-discrimination policies in light of a 1997 state law that expanded police powers to make stops, ask about the presence of weapons and seek consent to search. The Law Enforcement Non-Discrimination Resolution called for the gathering of complaint and traffic stop data, the conducting of general population and minority community perception surveys, and enhancement of training and community outreach efforts.
A New Jersey state trooper watches as demonstrators gather at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway last August, to protest police brutality and racial profiling.