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New Jersey State Police pull over more Black, Latino drivers, report finds

New Jersey AG put together a group to analyze traffic enforcement data after a state-commissioned analysis found Black and Latino drivers the most vulnerable.

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After a state-commissioned analysis found troopers were more likely to stop, search, arrest and use force against Black and Latino drivers in New Jersey, Attorney General Matthew Platkin has put together a team of researchers to develop a pilot program to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops. 

New Jersey joins other U.S. cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia to try and change how they enforce traffic stops. The New Jersey State Police is among the largest agencies in size and geographic scope to seek reforms. The changes, in part, came as a result of several high-profile police killings of drivers during such encounters.

“It is unacceptable for the actions of law enforcement to have a disparate impact on communities of color,” Attorney General Platkin said in a statement.

He said he was committed to fixing the issue, “whatever the root cause of these disparities” — including if they’re the result of “implicit bias, systemic faults in policies or something more intentional.”

The team of researchers will analyze traffic enforcement data, and develop and analyze policies to be piloted by NJ State Police in the near future in order to reduce racial disparities, improve officer and road safety, and reduce traffic crash fatalities, he said.

Head researcher Matthew B. Ross told Gothamist that the group is aiming to limit enforcement of minor infractions that don't affect street safety and are disproportionately hurting Black and Latinos in particular. 

According to Ross, these have included equipment violations such as overly tinted windows, as opposed to more serious moving violations including speeding or reckless driving. But the team’s final recommendations will be based on an analysis of the state's traffic data.

Ross will lead the research team and will be joined by CarlyWill Sloan, an assistant economic professor at West Point, and Kenneth Barone, a project manager at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy. 

They will retain “complete independence” in their analysis, according to Platkin’s office, and their findings will be made publicly available.

“There really hasn't been any sort of large-scale reforms that have been enacted with this careful data-driven design,” Ross said. “It’s a real opportunity for New Jersey not only to mitigate some of the disparities that they're seeing in their own data but really to be a national leader. And helping … re-imagining the way that we do these things nationally.”

On behalf of Platkin’s office, Ross previously analyzed data from more than 6 million traffic stops by NJ State Police between 2009 and 2021. He found the number of Black and Latino drivers stopped by State Police has increased over that time, from 35% of all motorists to 46%.

New Jersey is about 15% Black and about 22% Latino, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. When the sun was out — and skin color more visible — Black drivers were 9% more likely and Latino drivers were 16% to be stopped compared to white drivers.

After being stopped, Black drivers were 90% more likely to be searched than white drivers, despite that troopers were 10% less likely to find illegal items, the study found.

With Black drivers, troopers were also 88% more likely to arrest and 130% more likely to use force. Latino motorists were 46% more likely to be searched, 57% more likely to be arrested, and 28% more likely to experience force.

The New Jersey State Police has historically been under the microscope. They spent a decade under federal monitoring, beginning in 1999, after the Justice Department alleged in a lawsuit it had conducted illegal racial profiling for many years. 

As a result, the agency was required to institute a number of different reforms regarding police training and oversight. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a ban on racial profiling.

Also on Tuesday, separate allegations of systemic racial discrimination, including claims of racist taunts and Black officers being passed over for promotions, pushed Black activists to call for federal oversight of the New Jersey State Police.

During a Tuesday meeting of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, national leaders and local advocates called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the State Police, called on AG Platkin to address the allegations of discrimination within the agency, and asked Platkin to release a report on an investigation his office launched nearly three years ago into the State Police’s hiring and promotional practices. 

The demands come almost three months after two Black troopers, Lt. Damon Crawford and Major Brian Polite, filed a lawsuit against the agency alleging racist workplace harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.

In the lawsuit, Crawford and Polite were wrongly passed over for promotions and instead given to other less qualified candidates, they faced retaliation, and they had racist comments directed at them, including by one official who was later promoted. 

Attorneys Michelle Douglass and Gregg Zeff currently represent roughly two dozen troopers who allege they are victims of discrimination. The two sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting the Department of Justice pursue an investigation in light of “an alarming number of internal complaints and lawsuits.” 

The letter was co-signed by nine activists.

State Police hiring practices disproportionately favor “white heterosexual males and which in turn empowers this favored group to make unacceptable and outward racist, sexist, and homophobic comments towards minority members within the workplace,” they wrote.

According to the letter, about 84% of the state’s 3,181 troopers are white males, despite minorities accounting for roughly half of the state’s population. Women also make up just 3% of the force.

“We’re certainly not opposed to whatever remedy makes this work. Whether that’s a takeover, a consent decree — it has to be something different because clearly whatever’s happened so far hasn’t worked,” Zeff said in an interview with the New Jersey Monitor. “We’re looking to make State Police look like New Jersey.”

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