Is Racial Profiling Police Policy in Bloomfield — and Other Communities?

Colleen O'Dea | April 12, 2016 | More Issues
Do cops routinely stop black and Latino drivers so they can boost municipal revenue with traffic fines?

Lawyers and activists said they think alleged racial profiling by Bloomfield police, which the township and police officials deny, is an example of a practice that is probably widespread in similar New Jersey communities and influenced in part by a desire to increase revenue with traffic fines.

Monday, Seton Hall Law Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research, released a report that asserts the Bloomfield police target blacks and Hispanics for traffic stops. While the township’s population is about 60 percent white, non-Hispanic whites made up less than a quarter of those who appeared in municipal court during a month-long period last fall in which Denbeaux’s students and research assistants monitored the court. They also looked at a year’s worth of ticket data that corroborated the observations and showed large percentages of those ticketed were from neighboring Newark and East Orange.

“The data inexorably leads to the conclusion that African-Americans and Latinos are, collectively, Bloomfield Police’s target group for issuing tickets,” the report states. “Perhaps an even more revealing finding shows that Bloomfield Police target specific areas within Bloomfield, acting as a de facto ‘border patrol’ … By plotting out ticket incidence and frequency, one can see what essentially amounts to “a wall” of police erected against the Newark and East Orange border areas and their predominantly African-American and Latino residents.”

Click to expand/contract
Samuel A. DeMaio, Bloomfield’s police director, called that “obvious inflammatory language” that “ignores every rule of modern policing.” Law enforcement officers do not target minorities, he added, but wind up ticketing more of them because they are deployed in greater numbers in the southern part of the township and there is more crime there — three out of four offenses in Bloomfield in 2015 occurred in that area.

“Basic police personnel deployment requires us to deploy our resources accordingly, meaning 75 to 80 percent of our manpower is dedicated to this area. To do otherwise would be irresponsible,” DeMaio said in a statement. “Naturally, greater deployment of Officers to the area means a greater number of summonses issued there.”

He said that the study was not random but was skewed because it was based on those who appeared in court to plead their case, rather than simply pay a fine by mail or online. DeMaio said that “the issues of social justice and racial profiling are important ones” but “we take issue with the exceptionally flawed and invalidating nature of the report’s methodology.”

The report served as the basis for a segment by Vice News called Driving While Black in New Jersey that aired Sunday and included police following a car driven by two blacks working with the news team. Police stopped the car twice in one night, the first time after the driver made an illegal left turn after being followed for several blocks and the second time for no apparent reason — the officer told the driver a jacket in the back of his car was obstructing his view out the back windshield.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found the Seton Hall report credible and called on the state attorney general’s office to investigate the Bloomfield police and municipal court. The group also urged the state to require all police departments to collect and release data that includes race on law-enforcement activity and issue statewide standards for greater transparency on the collection of fines.

“Unfortunately, once again evidence has emerged confirming that blacks and Latinos in New Jersey municipalities disproportionately bear the brunt of the enforcement of low-level offenses,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “How many more advocacy reports, law school studies, media exposes, or instances of community outcry will it take before New Jersey policymakers take this problem seriously and take steps to root out racial profiling in New Jersey police departments? We have no doubt similar findings could emerge in countless other municipalities throughout the state.”

He said Seton Hall’s conclusions are similar to ones the ACLU found when it studied the racial disparity in arrests for minor offenses in four cities — Jersey City, Millville, Elizabeth, and New Brunswick. That study found that blacks were between 2.6 and 9.6 times more likely, depending on the city, to be arrested for loitering, marijuana possession, trespassing, and disorderly conduct than whites. Hispanics also were arrested more often than non-Hispanic whites.

Still, he called the Seton Hall study “deeply troubling,” adding that people in Bloomfield and across the state “deserve their interactions with the police to be fair, transparent, accountable, and bias-free.”

Edward Correa, a longtime community activist, agreed and said it is likely that similar patterns of discrimination, or discrimination of another kind, are likely in many other communities in the state.

“Let’s keep mind that profiling is just not racial,” he said. “It could be age, car types, college students. I believe there are many more Bloomfields out there.”

Click to expand/close
Bloomfield has a population of about 47,000 with a median household income of nearly $72,000, slightly below that of New Jersey as a whole. The southern portion of the township is predominantly minority. That third of the township includes Bloomfield Avenue, which runs from Newark through Bloomfield to Glen Ridge, and it is where most — between 84 percent and 88 percent, depending on the measure — of the tickets issued to drivers from September 2014 through August 2015 were written.

“Much of the explanation for the racial distribution of tickets is undoubtedly due to the issuance of citations to residents of the cities of Newark and East Orange,” the report states. “The borders of these cities with Bloomfield were overwhelmingly targeted by the Bloomfield Police.”

“We were shocked at the disparities in the percentages between the North versus Center versus South sections of the township,” Correa said.

Denbeaux said that when the Seton Hall team was doing its research, it got little cooperation from Bloomfield. They could not even get a copy of each day’s court calendar, but had to take pictures of the calendar posted on the wall each day.

“Their complaints seem to admit that they actually go where the crime is and that is wherever African and Latinos drive through Bloomfield,” he said. “Whatever objections that they have to our methodology could be easily resolved by them They know all of the numbers — none of which they would share with us. We don’t attempt to address motivations for the stops except to point out the obvious racial and ethnic disparities … We did not start out expecting to find any systematic evidence of racial profiling. But we were very disturbed by what we found. It was far worse than anyone expected.”

As a result, the report estimates that blacks and Hispanics from East Orange and Newark, two distressed cities, paid almost $400,000 in a one-year period in fines to Bloomfield. Using an average charge of $137, the report calculates that all Latinos and African Americans, including those from Bloomfield and other communities, paid more than $1 million to the township’s court. Because the court’s annual budget is about $500,000, that meant the township received “a substantial ‘profit’ from this pattern of law enforcement, most of it from nonresidents of Bloomfield and heavily weighted on the backs of African Americans and Latinos as a group,” the report concluded.

A subcommittee of the New Jersey State Bar Association is currently in the midst of hearings on the state’s municipal court system. One aspect of that study is the question of money, and whether politics affects what happens in the courtroom: There have been allegations that in some communities, judges are hired or replaced based on how much income they bring in from convictions on traffic and other minor offenses.

“Money and budgets certainly could explain the number of tickets but that cannot explain the disproportionate number of tickets to African Americans and Latinos” in Bloomfield, Denbeaux said. “I agree that the budget implications are very significant.”

“For me as an advocate, I have heard and read stories of municipal judges getting appointed only if they are able to generate revenue,” Correa said. “Is this real justice? … After they send the money to the state and the county, municipalities keep most of the revenue generated by local court.”

Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia defended the police and said the report does not provide a full or accurate assessment of law enforcement in the township. But he said he is open to talking with the study’s authors about their findings.

“When I became mayor we instituted new procedures, reforms, and technologies that have contributed to a 28 percent overall reduction in crime … as well as measures designed to enhance community policing and build trust between officers and residents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Venezia said in a statement. “While we are disappointed in the outcome of this study and do not believe that it reflects a complete and accurate assessment of our police department, we would welcome the authors to meet with members of our local government, police department, and our African-American and Hispanic communities to discuss their findings and look for common ground and opportunities to keep improving.”

DeMaio defended the professionalism of the department: “While the state mandates training for officers on the dangers of racial profiling once every three years, our officers are required to attend training every year,” he continued. “And amid the myriad of flawed data employed by the students, they neglected to take even the most basic of steps, including contacting the Bloomfield Police Department’s director for comment or additional information.”

Denbeaux said Bloomfield was chosen randomly, in part because of its convenient location to allow the students to visit and conduct their research. But the results have broad implications for policing across the state and the nation.

“We now expect that Bloomfield is not unique and we anticipate testing a variety of towns in New Jersey and across the country,” he said. “There are many schools and students who can use our templates and we are working to help them.”