New Jersey: Ground-zero in racial profiling uproar
While the New Jersey State Police won some lavish praise in October for the progress it made during the year in carrying out reforms under a 1999 consent decree, much of that good will managed to dissipate only a few weeks later with the release of internal documents showing that agency and state officials knew that troopers were targeting minority drivers at least three years before racial profiling was publicly acknowledged.
In a 123-page report to federal Judge Mary L. Cooper last year, court-appointed monitors said they were “unanimously impressed” with the NJSP’s commitment to implementing reforms aimed at ensuring that black and Hispanic drivers are treated fairly. The four-member team spent four weeks in August and five days in September interviewing troopers, listening to them calling in stops to the dispatch center and looking through documents.
The report was the first of an anticipated 12 to come during the five-year agreement between the state and the U.S. Justice Department. Monitors found the NJSP behind schedule in implementing only two of the mandated 97 reforms: delivering new training to all 2,400 troopers and computerizing traffic-stop data.
But even these were given a positive spin by the report’s authors, who attributed the delay to the decision by the state to do the job right rather than rush to meet a six-month, court-imposed deadline. “The monitoring team knows of no agency which could have completely complied with the requirements of this decree in the period of time available,” they said.
Among the overhauls agreed to in the consent decree was the installation of video cameras in cars. By February, the NJSP had collected approximately 40 tapes for use in the complaint process, all of which served to exonerate the troopers involved. Civilians in six cases were charged with filing false accusations and two motorists were indicted, according to Superintendent Carson Dunbar Jr.
Statistics disclosed by Dunbar last year showed a tripling of discrimination complaints in 1999 as compared with the previous year — from 18 to 58.
In October, however, documents obtained by The Bergen Record stirred up the racial profiling issue once again in New Jersey when they revealed that state leaders, including top state police officials and such figures as former attorney general Peter Verniero and executive assistant attorney general Alexander P. Waugh, not only tolerated targeting minority motorists, but encouraged it in the name of drug-control policy.
Legislative leaders that month asked a former United States attorney, Michael Chertoff, to review 50,000 pages of the newly surfaced documents. In one described by The Record, troopers were instructed to look for “Colombian males, Hispanic males, Hispanic and black males together, Hispanic male and female posing as a couple.” Another, used for training, taught them to focus on minorities when scanning the roadways as possible drug traffickers.
Such traffic violations as “speeding” and “failure to drive within a single lane” were cited as examples of ruses that could be used to pull over suspected drug couriers. And in an April 1997 memo written by Sgt. Thomas Gilbert to Lieut. David Blaker, then serving as administrative officer to former superintendent Carl Williams, a plan to “consistently” limit the statistics given to federal investigators was described in detail.
Verniero, who oversaw the state police when he served as attorney general from July 1996 until spring 1999, was named a state Supreme Court justice by Gov. Christine Whitman in September of that year, just two months before issuing a report which concluded that the NJSP never embraced any discriminatory law enforcement practice or policy involving racial profiling.
A federal probe into the 1998 shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike that brought the issue of racial profiling to the forefront was announced in November by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. The action was taken after a judge dismissed the case against the two troopers charged with firing 11 bullets into a van carrying four unarmed minority men, seriously injuring three, during a traffic stop on April 23, 1998.
New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer is appealing Superior Court Judge Andrew Smithson’s ruling, which tossed out aggravated assault charges against John Hogan and attempted murder and aggravated assault charges against James Kenna. Smithson’s ruling faulted prosecutors for misleading grand jurors by withholding key portions of the law regarding the use of deadly force by police.