NEWARK, N.J. -- At a public hearing today before the state Advisory Committee on Police Standards, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and criminal justice experts called on officials to adopt crucial reforms of state and local police departments as a means of curbing racial profiling and racially discriminatory law enforcement practices.
ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs urged the committee to consider two key recommendations: formation of an independent state office of police oversight and establishment of a system of professional police licensing.
Appointed by Governor Jon Corzine, the Advisory Committee on Police Standards is considering whether New Jersey should end participation in a federal consent decree, which it entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve numerous complaints of racial profiling, including the police shootings in 1998 of two African American men and one Latino man on the New Jersey Turnpike.
"New Jersey still wears the stain of racial profiling, and we know that it is an ongoing practice in both state and local police departments," Jacobs told the committee. "The consent decree simply does not do what the citizens of New Jersey need it to do in the interest of public safety."
Law enforcement experts testifying on behalf of the ACLU-NJ noted that racial profiling continues unabated on the New Jersey Turnpike. The government's own statistics show that on the southern portion of the Turnpike, African Americans make up a higher percentage of stops than they did before the consent decree began. In addition, a study commissioned by the ACLU-NJ and shared with the committee found that the stops of African Americans on the southern end of the Turnpike were greatly disproportionate from the percentage of African American drivers or speeders there (18.5 percent versus 30.8 percent).
Observing that the consent decree has not accomplished one of its key purposes -- eradication of racial profiling -- the ACLU-NJ urged the committee to establish a strong, well-funded permanent office of police oversight. This office would be located within state government, but established as an independent office, similar to the state's Public Employment Relations Commission or Election Law Enforcement Commission.
One great benefit of having such a department, the ACLU-NJ said, is that it could review the actions of both the State Police and the 560-plus local police departments in the state. The ACLU-NJ receives many complaints each year about police misconduct from local police departments.
For example, the organization recently settled litigation against the Manalapan Police Department on behalf of three African American boys who were stopped and harassed by the police while their white friends were told to go home.
Randal Yorker, one of the litigants in the case and the father of one of the boys, also testified at today's public hearing. "I learned very early in this legal process that an individual's right to obtain justice is costly and can be discouraging and intimidating," Yorker told the committee. 'Part of the process requires that you complain to the very same entity that you have an issue with and they perform the investigation. This conflict of interest has a chilling effect on the person filing a complaint and compromises any notion of fairness."
Additionally, Jacobs of the ACLU urged the committee to start licensing police. New Jersey is one of only seven states that do not require that police be licensed. "As incredible as it sounds, in New Jersey the public is better protected against reckless manicurists and dentists than rogue police officers," Jacobs said.
The ACLU-NJ maintains that by licensing police officers, the state would protect the public, promote standards of professionalism and address the all-too-common problem of police officers who are terminated from one department for misconduct getting a job in another town in the same state, only to commit misdeeds against another community.
The state Advisory Committee on Police Standards is expected to produce its final recommendation several weeks after the next report by federal monitors, which is scheduled for release in May.
The testimony of ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas and ACLU-NJ plaintiff Sean Anderson is available below.