NJ cops way more likely to arrest blacks than whites for minor crimes, ACLU report finds
A new report by the ACLU of New Jersey finds black people were nearly 10 times more likely than white people to be arrested for minor crimes in Jersey City — and that racial disparities played out in several other New Jersey communities as well.
The Jersey City example was the most extreme, but the ACLU report, looking at 10 years of data on the enforcement of four low-level offenses — loitering, marijuana possession of 50 grams or less, defiant trespass, and disorderly conduct — found similar patterns in other towns. The report includes data through 2013.
In Millville, blacks were 6.3 times more likely to be arrested, the report said. In Elizabeth, 3.4 times, and New Brunswick, 2.6 times., according to the report.
The report also found what it said were "significant" disparities between arrests for Latinos and whites, though it said incomplete record-keeping made it difficult to assess patterns accurately.
“The data reveal a clear pattern of communities of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of police practices that target low-level offenses,” ACLU-NJ executive director Udi Ofer said in a statement from the organization.
Offer said the report showed that in black and Latino communities, New Jersey residents "are arrested for minor misbehavior at a much greater rate than in White communities."
"Unlike more serious crime, where there is a victim or some form of property damage, low-level offenses rest primarily on a police officer’s discretion to arrest for behavior that poses little or no harm to the community," he said. "The discretionary nature of these arrests creates ample opportunity for arbitrary and unfair enforcement of the law.”
The report also said most of those arrested for low-level crimes weren't also charged with more serious offenses in the same incidents.
The new ACLU report is an outgrowth of a 2013 report by the same organization that found black people in New Jersey were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people despite similar rates of use.
"The human cost of these arrests and convictions can include having to pay court costs and fines; criminal records that follow individuals for the rest of their lives; and the loss of income, housing, child custody, or immigration status," the ACLU wrote in the report. "In extreme cases, a confrontation with police over a low-level offense can escalate into an episode of violence."
The ACLU also found police department records "are often inaccessible and were kept in a haphazard manner by all four departments," making any study and accountability effort difficult, the group wrote in its announcement.
The ACLU had originally intended to include the Asbury Park Police Department in its study, but found its records too poor to make assessments, it said. The department wasn't able to provide records electronically, and those printed records it could provide lacked information on race, gender, location, and the other offenses a person was charged with, the ACLU said.
"The practices of the APPD are a glaring example of poor data management by a police department," it said in the report. "Using an electronic record management system is only the first step in adequate data collection practices. Departments must take additional steps to ensure that their systems’ structures make basic policing data easily accessible, and they must train personnel to manage and retrieve the data."
The report recommends that local officials, police chiefs and prosecutors make enforcement of low-level offenses among their lowest priorities — and should stop using enforcement of such offenses as a benchmark for evaluating officers. It also says state and local government should adopt anti-racial profiling laws, and police should be trained to recognize both conscious and unconscious biases.
It recommends expanded use of dashboard and body cameras — separately, the state's attorney general's office said Monday New Jersey is awarding $2.5 million for 176 police departments to purchase body cameras for officers.
The report recommends legalizing and taxing marijuana — saying the number of arrests of blacks for marijuana demonstrates how unfair the laws are in practice.
"This study serves as a glimpse into the racial disparities in low-level arrests for only four law-enforcement agencies. But it's clear: Black and Latino communities bear the disproportionate impact of enforcement in New Jersey,” Ari Rosmarin, public policy diirector of the ACLU-NJ, said in a statement from the group. “The Attorney General should investigate whether such disparities exist throughout the state, determine the causes of the disparities, and take steps to eliminate them. It's time for action.”
New Jersey Advance Media quotes Jersey City Public Safety Director Jim Shea saying reforms enacted since he and Mayor Steve Fulop took office would help address racial disparities — noting the data includes time before their tenure.
"Up until 2012, (the broken windows theory) is pretty much gospel in American policing," Shea told the news organization, referring to an approach in which police target low-level crime in hopes of making communities less hospitable to crime overall. "Around 2013, you start to have a much larger conversation about the damage caused (to minority communities)."
The New Jersey Advance Media report also quotes a spokesman for acting Attorney General John Hoffman saying his office would review and assess the report.
New Jersey State Police were subject to monitoring by the U.S. Justice Department from 1999 to 2009, after a racial profiling scandal. Newark and federal officials are expected to announce a consent decree for monitoring in that community soon.