The Police and Political Firestorm in New Jersey

By Hugh B. Price 
President
National Urban League 

Black Americans have long learned to live with their deeply complex relationship with America’s criminal justice system. 

That is, they’ve always understood that the criminal justice system does not act only to protect them from criminals. Deeply infected itself by racial bias, the criminal justice system is also often callously indifferent to their rights as citizens, or actively disregards them. 

This is what criminal justice expert Christopher E. Stone referred to as the harsh “paradox” African Americans face about law enforcement matters. 

Writing in the National Urban League’s The State of Black America 1996 volume, Stone said that “(a)s a group, African Americans suffer severely from crime in their communities. Yet, they have learned, justifiably, to mistrust the governmental institutions charged with fighting crime.” 

That justifiable wariness toward law enforcement was starkly displayed in the survey the polling firm of Blum & Weprin, Inc. conducted for our affiliate, the New York Urban League, last June. 

On the one hand, black New Yorkers strongly favor good, effective police: 49 percent said the greatest change needed to improve their personal quality of life would be the assurance of safer streets at night. 

But the survey’s responses also identified the other side of the “paradox.” 

All economic classes of blacks expressed a deep mistrust of law enforcement agencies. Nearly two-thirds of black males and more than half of black females said they worry that they themselves will be subjected to police brutality, and 89 percent of all respondents said it was a serious problem. 

That said, even those most knowledgeable about this complex relationship have to be astonished at the recent developments the investigation of the racial profiling of black and Hispanic motorists by the New Jersey State Police has produced. 

Before last month, when the New Jersey State Senate’s judiciary committee began formal hearings on the state’s efforts in the late 1990s to eliminate the practice, it seemed that we had largely learned all there was to learn about it. 

Now, however, the State’s current Attorney General says that racial profiling by state police troopers is still occurring in significant measure: Recent statistics show that blacks and Hispanics make up 73 percent of the searches of motorists conducted by the state troopers—but that far less drugs and guns are being seized from that cohort than from the far smaller cohort of non-Hispanic whites stopped. 

Those figures led William Buckman, a criminal defense attorney centrally involved in uncovering the existence of widespread racial profiling, to tell the New York Times, that “the state police are still in the grip of an incredibly entrenched and belligerent corps of racial profilers.” 

A second development is equally stunning. The senate committee’s hearings have now led to both the committee itself and the state’s acting governor to harshly criticize the state’s former Attorney General, Peter G. Verniero—and to demand that he resign from his current position as a Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. 

Both have said that they now believe when he was Attorney General, Justice Verniero knew that racial profiling was a severe problem and had been “derelict in his duty” in trying to stop it. Moreover, they also charge that he’s been continually misleading and evasive about his actions in his public statements and testimony before the judiciary committee. 

Justice Verniero has thus far refused to respond to the demands, declaring that he has done nothing wrong. 

That the acting governor, Donald T. DiFrancesco, and the chairman of the Senate committee, Senator William L. Gormley, two years ago both strongly supported Justice Verniero, a fellow Republican, for his Supreme Court seat underscores the intensity of the political firestorm the issue of racial profiling has provoked in New Jersey. 

So does the fact that nearly half of the Senate’s Republicans (and many Democrats) have also called for Justice Verniero to step down. 

We all should be clear about the true wellspring of this firestorm. 

It came from, first, the moral outrage of those blacks, Hispanics, and whites who felt that what the state police were doing was wrong and fought for years against the indifference and disbelief of many that such a wholesale violation of citizens’ rights could be the policy of a state governmental agency. 

And secondly, it has come from a significant group of the state’s elected officialdom, who took a fellow elected official at his word, and now believes that his response to a great public problem was disgraceful. 

The response in New Jersey is appropriate: a great public firestorm is what indulging in and tolerating a pattern of racism, a particularly despicable kind of ethical corruption, should lead to. It’s what the practice deserves.

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