The ACLU & The Police

A Special Issue of the Civil Liberties Reporter from the ACLU of New Jersey

In 1967, following urban riots in 150 cities, the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders heard testimony from 130 witnesses. Common to many of the submissions was the anger caused by “the stopping of Negroes on foot or in cars without obvious basis.” More than thirty years later, the unconstitutional police practice of targeting people of color persists.

“Racial profiling” was born of slavery, raised by segregation, and has matured under pervasive, patently-false stereotypes of minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos. In remarks that got him fired, the former superintendent of the New Jersey State Police reiterated the stereotype as follows: “Today with this drug problem, the drug problem is cocaine or marijuana. It is most likely a minority group that is involved with that. They aren't going to ask some Irishman to be a part of their gang because they don't trust them.”

In fact, five times as many whites use drugs than blacks, Latinos, or other minorities. According to the federal government's own reports, 80 percent of the country's cocaine users are white, and the “typical cocaine user is a middle-class, white suburbanite.” Today, blacks constitute 13 percent of the country's drug users, but 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison. In New Jersey, the disproportionate arresting of minorities for drug offenses is even more out of line—63 percent statewide in 1997. On the New Jersey Turnpike, minorities constituted 74 percent of those arrested in a four month period in 1997.

It is no wonder the arrest rates of minorities are so high when they are virtually tracked down by law enforcement. In New Jersey, the now-undisputed decision in <cite>New Jersey v. Soto</cite> showed that 46.2 percent of those stopped by the State Police on the southern half of the NJ Turnpike were black, though blacks comprised only 13.5 percent of those traveling that area. Governor Whitman's April 20 report on racial profiling showed that 77.2 percent of searches involved a black or Hispanic person.

To what end? Most of these stops and searches are fruitless, because they are based on little more than racial bias and an invented pretext. In New York City, the police admit to 45,000 searches over the past two years—only 1 in 9 of these resulted in good arrests. In California, the highway patrol canine units —part of a drug interdiction program called Operation Pipeline— stopped nearly 34,000 people but found less than 2 percent of them were actually carrying drugs.

The ACLU is fighting back through a national media campaign, legislative initiatives at every level, and litigation in eight states. Victims of racial profiling are encouraged to contact the national toll free hotline 877-6-PROFILE (877-677-3453) or in New Jersey 877-2-END-DWB (877-236-3392). The ACLU— thanks to member support of its two national offices and 53 field offices—is the organization most able to chip away at this pervasive, pernicious national problem

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