In April of 1998, troopers with the New Jersey State Police fired their guns at a van carrying four young men, all of them unarmed, and all of them African-American or Latino. Three were hit, but by some miracle, none were killed.
That shooting decisively tipped the balance in the long argument over racism in the State Police, their well-documented habit of pulling over black drivers for the sin of being black. It led to a decade of federal oversight that created real change. Cameras were installed on cruisers, training was revamped, minority troopers were hired and promoted, and internal affairs started cracking down.
“They had great success,” says the Rev. Reginald Jackson, who led the political campaign demanding change as head of the Black Minister’s Council. “But the local police were always worse. The State Police got the attention.”
Twenty years later, it’s time for Round Two. And this fight, against racism in local police departments, is going to be much tougher for several reasons we’ll discuss below.
But let’s start with the facts. A 16-month investigation by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com produced hard data, collected by police themselves, showing that African-Americans are far more likely to be punched, kicked, pepper sprayed, or struck with a baton. They are more than twice as likely to be shot.
It’s not just that blacks are arrested more often. Among those arrested, blacks are 41 percent more likely than whites to face violence at the hands of local police, according to data gathered by police from 2012 to 2016. And that is despite the fact that white people are more likely to threaten police, and to attack them with a car, knife or gun. Black people are more likely to run away, the data shows.
Facing the hard facts is the first step towards reform. It’s true, as police union leaders point out, that data itself does not prove misbehavior. It is a warning flag only. But given America’s long and undeniable history of racist violence, often fortified today by video, it takes willful blindness to ignore the extreme likelihood that bias is at work.
At a minimum, the data demands a deeper dive into police behavior, and the kind of vigorous oversight we saw with the State Police. And the fight to reform local police will be a much steeper climb.
New Jersey has more than 500 police departments, and some are bound to resist. Two years ago, the police chief in Wyckoff, Benjamin Fox, was forced out after he encouraged his officers in an e-mail to target African-American drivers based solely on race, saying black gangs in nearby Teaneck were committing burglaries in town. How would a chief like that react to a reform ordered up in Trenton?
In Millville, where blacks are seven times as likely as whites to be subject to police force, Chief Jody Farabella sees no need to dig deeper. “It doesn’t concern me,” Farabella said. “We don’t have any complaints about it.”
The state attorney general doesn’t have the resources to adequately oversee all local departments, a pinch made worse in recent years by the fiscal crisis in Trenton. “The attorney general can put out guidance and triage emergencies, but I frankly don’t think they have the kind of funding even I had to oversee local police and prosecutors,” says John Farmer, who was attorney general when he welcomed federal oversight in 1999. “That makes the job a real challenge.”
And unlike 1998, there is no grand political push to get this done today. Racial profiling was a core political issue in 1998, a top subject in political debates, and a key goal of civil rights groups. Will this new data kick off an equally determined drive?
The biggest change today, though, is that President Trump has abandoned efforts to reform state and local police departments, explicitly ruling out federal interventions like the one that reformed the State Police two decades ago, and the one that is reforming the Newark Police Department today. In those cases, the Department of Justice sent crews to oversee reform, based on plans approved by federal judges, who regularly checked progress.
All that’s gone now, as long as Trump is with us. We’ve lost the heavyweight player in this fight.
“We are the only game in town now,” says former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose 2014 investigation of Newark led to the federal intervention in 2016.
For Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, this will be a legacy issue. They have both expressed deep concern about the data, while both have emphasized that most police officers do good work and deserve the public’s support. But at some point, a vigorous reform effort is almost certain to provoke opposition from politically potent police unions.
So, the real test for Murphy and Grewal has yet to come. Will they start to collect this data on their own, rather than rely on the media? Will they provide the resources needed to do this job right — to establish best practices, to put supervisory teams in troubled departments, even to help locals buy body cameras and computers?
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Local governments need to step up as well. In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka and Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose have both embraced the federal intervention, and all sides say that improves the odds of success dramatically. Will political leaders and police in other New Jersey towns treat a reform drive coming from Trenton with the same respect?
We face a daunting task. But with this data as a starting point, New Jersey could break new ground on police reform and set a model nationally. Here’s to fighting Round Two with unrelenting vigor in 2019.
More: Tom Moran columns
Tom Moran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.
To end racial bias in police violence, face these facts | Editorial