By Andrea Long, ACLU-NJ Donor Relations Manager
I was fortunate to have grown up in Wyckoff, New Jersey. When I was one, my parents purchased a home with an apple tree and a pool. My mother would take me to a local farm to ride my favorite pony, Peanut. I still remember how exciting it was when a new playground was built next to the library. As soon as I learned to ride a two-wheeler, I’d ride my bike all over our little cul-de-sac. Wyckoff had everything a child could want, except maybe a movie theater. It’s a beautiful town with friendly people and excellent schools. I always felt safe, and I knew I belonged.
When I was growing up, Wyckoff was even more overwhelmingly white than it is today. And, as such, race rarely came up, at least not for me. It never occurred to me that our police department’s leadership might embrace racial profiling, as a leaked email (PDF) the ACLU-NJ released in March from then-Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox suggested. “Profiling, racial or otherwise, has its place in law enforcement,” the email said. I never had to think about it. And for that, I know I’m lucky.
As far as I knew, we didn’t have problems with racism in Wyckoff. I never saw any race-related conflict. Although when your town is .56 percent Black, the level of racial diversity made it difficult for most people to witness very much interracial interaction on a day-to-day basis, much less conflict. My schools were overwhelmingly White, but I still had friends across the racial spectrum. Some students who were immigrants stuck together because their English wasn’t fluent yet, but otherwise our student body wasn’t segregated.
The members of the police department were always friendly and approachable. I knew officers from the D.A.R.E. program, but also because we had to call for an ambulance a couple of times
for my grandmother. For the most part, the police force never felt like a significant presence.
In the late 90s, our home was burglarized. Living near the highway through town, we were told that out-of-towners were likely to blame. The Wyckoff Police made me feel safe at home afterward. They were on our side.
I know now that my experience was different because I’m White. I also know Wyckoff shaped who I am. Had we been one of the few Black families, I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like. I’m sure Black Wyckoff residents moved there for excellent schools, low crime, lots of trees, and (seemingly?) friendly neighbors. But it was foolish of me to think that Wyckoff was a racism-free space. The police always treated me and my mother well, but I have to question how we would have been treated if we were Black.
Some Wyckoff and Bergen County residents are defending the racial profiling advocated by the Wyckoff police chief, who stepped down indefinitely after the allegations — allegations that prompted an investigation by the state Attorney General. I am astonished that people in my childhood community in 2016 do not understand the harm of racial profiling. It’s unconstitutional. It has no place in Wyckoff, or anywhere. The police need to protect all of us – not just the ones who look like me.
Even though some residents have defended the police chief, I am confident that many more understand the need to tackle racist police practices at every opportunity. We need to make Wyckoff the place that we want it to be. We must confront our issues, not continue to pretend like they do not exist. Wyckoff can do better, and I believe that we will.