WASHINGTON - As four men, three black and one Latino, made their way down the New Jersey Turnpike toward a North Carolina University where they were planning on trying out for the basketball team, they had no way of knowing that three of them would end up at a hospital with bullet wounds before they reached the state line. But that is what happened. Two New Jersey troopers shined a spotlight into their rented van and pulled it over for speeding. In the following seconds the officers fired 11 shots into the vehicle hitting three unarmed passengers. The police claim that the van had started to reverse, but the passengers disagree. Their attorneys, bolstered by an outraged public, argue that the young men were stopped because they were minorities a practice known as racial profiling.
Racial profiling refers to troopers illegally targeting minorities and stopping them for minor traffic violations, then subjecting drivers and passengers to lengthy searches, abuse or arrest in an effort to repress the drug trade. Many motorists' complaints focus on the East Coast artery, I-95, known by law enforcement officials as the drug corridor.
Last month, a year after the turnpike shooting, the young men hired a crack team of lawyers, including O.J. Simpson's attorney, Johnnie Cochran, and filed a lawsuit against the state. The suit was one more blow to New Jersey, still reeling from the release of a state investigation that confirmed some police engaged in racial profiling. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) validated the state's findings and plans to file suit too.
One of the attorneys for the van riders, David Ironman said, "We expect that our suit as well as the DOJ filing of an intent to sue puts the state of New Jersey on notice that they have racially profiled." He speculates that the court cases will result in new training requirements for police and "hopefully" an end to the practice of profiling.
Profiling became more evident during the 1980s and 90s when troopers were given incentives for making large numbers of drug arrests. And in 1989, a memo written by former New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Clinton Pagano informed troopers that minorities are most likely to traffic in illegal drugs. The document instructed troopers to listen for Jamaican accents, among other stereotypes. This memo was used as evidence by a Gloucester County judge in finding troopers guilty of profiling in a 1996 case.
Those activists who see the war on drugs as a war on minorities have argued that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cleaned up crime in New York City at the cost of minorities' rights. "If you take the long historical view of the drug laws and the way in which our law officers enforce them, they are the contemporary Jim Crow laws," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a liberal leaning Washington think tank.
"The outrage that law abiding black citizens feel at being treated as criminals on the highways is an outrage that is going to lead to litigation - and it is warranted by the facts," said Sterling.
That is why the story of a traffic stop ending in violence on the New Jersey Turnpike is no surprise to many in the minority community. The same people were not surprised last month when New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman admitted that profiling is real, and it isn't only a problem in her state. Whitman and Attorney General Peter Verniero hope that the Garden State will become a model among states plagued by reports of unwarranted traffic stops and police brutality.
On April 20, Verniero released the "Interim Report of the State Police Review Team Regarding Allegations of Racial Profiling." Traffic stop data from 164 troopers stationed in Cranbury and Moorestown showed that over 75 percent of the 2,000 stops were of black or Latino drivers but only 19 percent resulted in arrests.
"We are proposing to go further than any other jurisdiction to date in facing up to this problem and in establishing systems to ensure that the laws are enforced impartially by State Police members assigned to patrol duties," the report states. But the report makes clear that New Jersey is confessing to only a "small number of State Police" engaging in profiling. The report also states that officers are more likely influenced by stereotypes creating an atmosphere of "de facto discrimination."
Verniero proposed reforms that would require troopers to record the race of a person stopped in patrol logs and with dispatchers, end the practice of "spotlighting" vehicles to see what race the driver and passengers are, and equip police cars with video cameras to monitor conduct at a stop. He hopes random audits of the different records will become an "early warning system" against profiling.
Sterling said because New Jersey is a fairly diverse state -- rural and urban, rich and poor -- it is a microcosm of the nation. "The impact that this (profiling report) will have on other states is essentially an exhibit. People will say, if it is happening in New Jersey it may be happening here."
A growing number of states have been gathering testimony on racial profiling, and 11 states have bills pending that would require officers to collect traffic stop data, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
North Carolina has passed a racial profiling bill and begun gathering traffic-stop data. New Jersey completed its study, and states with pending legislation include: California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, Florida and Massachusetts.
Some cities have also committed to look at the issue. Police chiefs in San Jose and San Diego, California have voluntarily agreed to start collecting arrest data. At the same time, a number of police chiefs from around the nation met in April and pledged to work together to craft a national traffic-stop policy, according to Thomas C. Frazier, commissioner of the Baltimore police department in Maryland and President of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.
In testimony before Massachusetts lawmakers the chief public health officer for Cambridge, Massachusetts, an African American, said that he was stopped four times by police, just two blocks from his Winchester home.
A black Connecticut mother tied the highly publicized police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a black man killed by police in New York City, to racial profiling in her state in a lawsuit she filed after the death of her son. She alleges the white police officer who shot her son, first racially profiled him.
Maryland is considering a bill that would require a racial profiling study. The first line of the legislation states: "Drug abuse affects persons of all racial groups and social and economic levels and is not a problem only of minorities." Later in the document it asserts that "nearly every adult African-American male" can recount a humiliating and dehumanizing experience with the police.
In April, 27 members of Congress introduced the "Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1999," which would require the Attorney General to gather national traffic stop data from a sample of jurisdictions and then report the results to Congress.
"It will put those who patrol our roads on notice: We are watching what you do, and if you stop someone on the road, you'd better have a good reason and that reason cannot be 'Driving While Black' or 'Driving While Brown,'" Democratic Caucus Vice Chair, and bill co-sponsor, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said.
New Jersey's investigation and intense scrutiny has left the police force deeply divided and has spurred a lawsuit by some black troopers who fear retaliation from their colleagues. Police organizations have been opposed to states collecting traffic stop data, said Sterling. And he said, "In general police organizations have fairly significant influence on state legislatures."
But, what may be worse, is the alienation that this alleged profiling policy has caused in the minority community. According to at least one poll taken in Connecticut, the minority community has a distinct mistrust of police.
The recent spate of highly publicized white police officers shooting minority suspects such as the Diallo murder, where NYC police fired 41 bullets at an unarmed man, the shooting of an unarmed 14-year-old Connecticut boy and the allleged police beating and sodomizing of Abner Louima in New York, has heightened the demand for policy reform.
Kevin Keenan, Acting Executive Director for the Newark ACLU says that these shootings have inspired grassroots concern and activism. New York's Rev. Al Sharpton, who has joined Cochran in crusading for Diallo's family, is now threatening to organize a mass protest at the State House in Trenton if Whitman doesn't comply with his demands for indictments and stronger racial profiling recommendations.
People are quickly making the connection between Louima and Diallo and racial profiling, said Keenan. "The problems reach much deeper than racial profiling and are much more widespread than the state police," he said.
Rachel King who works on racial profiling cases at the ACLU's Washington office agrees, adding that profiling compounded by recent, well known cases of police brutality are causing great concern across the states. "This can impact their (minority communities) willingness to work with the police, to give them information or seek protection from them," she said.