As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are rising across the state, the ACLU of New Jersey today released a report, “Policing the Pandemic: COVID-19 and Lockdown Enforcement in New Jersey,” that sets out to examine the enforcement of lockdown executive orders by police during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now approaching the four-year mark since lockdowns began, the results of ACLU-NJ's study confirm the organization’s initial concerns of discriminatory lockdown enforcement.  

Reports of variable enforcement of stay-at-home orders – and the actions taken by government actors in support of those orders – had a disproportionate impact on communities of color across New Jersey. Based on an analysis of police arrest reports obtained through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests, there were clear racial disparities between Black and white communities in the number of police stops for executive order enforcement. In addition, there were also explicit racial disparities in the number of arrests and searches of Black New Jerseyans following police stops for executive order enforcement. 

“The results of our report are dismaying,” said former ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Karen Thompson*, who authored the report. “COVID pulled off the blinders around these well-familiar inequities that led to communities of color experiencing higher rates of infection and death. The results reflect racial inequality in New Jersey that remains entrenched and deadly, from the worst racial disparities in prisons in the United States, to some of the starkest racial disparities in health outcomes in the country, to more than a dozen other metrics from homelessness to veterans' care.” 

By conducting this report and making its results public, the ACLU-NJ calls on public officials and lawmakers to implement inclusive response orders for the future.  New Jersey’s government actions to combat COVID-19 show how an overly punitive and narrow emergency response can exacerbate systemic fault lines that have remained unaddressed, including racial discrimination in policing. 

* Karen Thompson served as a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey from 2019-2024; she now serves as the legal director of Pregnancy Justice.