At an April 1999 press conference, Attorney General Peter Verniero (left) and Gov. Christie Whitman confirm what many blacks already know: Racial profiling is an ugly fact. (AP)
Troopers James Kenna (left) and John Hogan are arraigned on charges in the turnpike shooting in June 1999. (AP)
|History will record 1999 as the year racial profiling by policemen, be it real or imagined, emerged as an issue in New Jersey the way lava might explode from the side of a volcano.
The first flaming fissure opened in late February, when the governor fired the state police superintendent for talking to the press about what kinds of narcotics different ethnic groups are inclined to smuggle.
Next, in April, came the indictment of two gunslinging troopers on charges they falsified police reports to disguise how they targeted blacks for traffic stops and roadside drug searches.
In announcing the indictments, Jersey's attorney general reversed the official state position and conceded for the first time that some troopers had been stopping cars based on only the race of the driver.
In June, Trentonians upset about the fatal cop shooting of a teen joyrider and other law-enforcement issues voted along racial lines to establish new, civilian leadership for the city police force.
On Sept. 7, the troopers who allegedly falsified reports were indicted again on new charges that they were trying to kill when they shot at a car carrying four young minority men in Washington Township in April of 1998.
Officials can only hope all the breaks in the side of the Jersey volcano relieved enough pressure to keep it from blowing its top. Still, there's a lot of hot lava running across the political landscape, and no one knows how long it will burn.
Racial profiling is a term born in the 1990s, coined by minorities who said police arrest statistics and a growing log of personal stories told them cops were targeting blacks in particular as potential drug runners.
Cops denied it and warned that the profiling allegation was really an attempt to trump the cards of prosecutors pressing drug trafficking and other charges against blacks and other minorities.
Profiling defenses were used successfully for the first time in a Gloucester County court in 1996, when a judge tossed out 17 drug arrests on grounds the suspects were stopped and searched only because they were minorities. One of the suspects was carrying 10 pounds of cocaine, critics of the ruling noted.
State prosecutors were at work on an appeal of the Gloucester judge's ruling when, within 27 days in the spring of 1998, three separate police shootings in Greater Trenton put the national spotlight on profiling allegations and the bad blood between many black people and Jersey's mostly white police forces.
First, on the night of March 27, 1998, in the very shadow of the State House, several city policemen opened fire on a stolen car as the 16-year-old driver allegedly tried to speed backwards into the officers. Driver Hubert Moore took a bullet in the neck. His girlfriend and passenger, 14-year-old Jenny Hightower, was killed instantly with a bullet to the back of her head.
Less than a week later, on April 2, a city policeman's gun accidentally discharged as officers raided a house suspected as a haven for drug dealing. A bullet shot off a 16-month-old baby's little toe before passing into the leg of her mother.
On the night of April 23, troopers James Kenna and John Hogan opened fire on a van they had stopped for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike near interchange 7A in Mercer County. The officers said they fired, wounding three of the four young minority men inside, when the van lurched back toward them.
Enter Johnnie Cochran and Al Sharpton, whose names were being bandied about in Trenton even before the turnpike shooting brought both into the fray full bore.
There was talk of slain Hightower's deaf mother getting the famed O.J. Simpson lawyer to sue the city, for instance, and some local activists wanted New York civil rights agitator Sharpton to march in support of the city cop, Limmie Caver, who angered most of his white colleagues and a few of his black ones by questioning the shooting of the joyriding teens.
After the turnpike shooting, Sharpton threatened to stage a march on the State House if Gov. Christie Whitman and her attorney general, Peter Verniero, didn't conduct a criminal investigation of the troopers who shot up the van — James Kenna, 29, a state police captain's son from Hamilton Square, and John Hogan, 28, who is known around his hometown of Florence for his exploits as a star high school wrestler.
Hollywood's Cochran and legal cohorts from New York appeared at a press conference with the wounded young men and disclosed that victims had no drugs in the rental van, but did have a Bible. Filled with "hoop dreams,'' the young men were headed to a basketball clinic at a North Carolina college.
Keyshon Moore, 23, the driver and only one of the four not hit by police bullets that night on the turnpike, said he blamed himself for the shooting. He was not familiar with the van because it was a rental, Moore said, explaining that it lurched into reverse as he tried to put it into park after pulling over as signaled by the troopers.
Jersey's influential Black Ministers Council also joined the fray, demanding full probes of the cops who fired away and saying changes were needed in the leadership, policies and promotional practices of many police forces.
With promises to do the right thing, with soothing words aimed at assuring everyone that justice would be done, Whitman and Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer managed to keep the lid on racial tension through the summer of ‘98 and into the winter and new year.
As 1999 dawned, stories about "racial profiling'' were fading from the news pages — and the term was still being bracketed by quotes. Whitman and Palmer were both glad all the chatter about it had quieted down.
Then Carl Williams, the state police superintendent, spoke out. In a lengthy interview published Feb. 28 he explained to Jersey's largest newspaper that different ethnic groups were inclined to run different drugs.
"If you're looking at the methamphetamine market, that seems to be controlled by the motorcycle gangs, which are basically predominately white. If you're looking at heroin and stuff like that, your involvement there is more or less Jamaican,'' Williams said.
"Two weeks ago, the president of the United States went to Mexico to talk to the president of Mexico about drugs,'' said Williams. "He didn't go to Ireland. He didn't go to England.
"Today ... the drug problem is cocaine and marijuana. It is most likely a minority group that's involved with that. They aren't going to ask some Irishman to be part of their (gang) because they don't trust them.''
Within hours, Whitman fired Williams. Her spokesman said Williams' comments were "insensitive'' and ran counter to Whitman's efforts to "bolster confidence in law enforcement. There are vast segments of the New Jersey public whose confidence in the system is shaken.''
A few days later in an editorial, The Trentonian suggested Williams was fired more for speaking out at the wrong time than for what he said. In an exclusive news report, for instance, the paper pointed out that much of what Williams said came from a long-standing advisory to American law enforcement from the president's top drug advisor.
On April 19, Verniero announced the indictments of Kenna and Hogan on charges they falsified reports, listing as white some of the black motorists they stopped, because they knew the higher-ups were trying to thwart their brand of law enforcement.
At their arraignments, dozens of family and friends of the troopers showed in support of Hogan and Kenna, some of them wearing HK insignias styled after the logo of the manufacturer of state police handguns, Heckler & Koch.
The troopers' lawyers screamed, meanwhile, that the indictments were purely political, aimed at quelling all the talk about racial profiling because of its socially explosive nature. Never before had troopers been brought up on criminal charges for simple "administrative errors,'' the lawyers said.
The politicians still had to deal with Cochran and Sharpton, however.
Days after the indictment, for instance, Cochran announced the results of his investigation, disclosing that before the troopers would let medics in to tend to the wounded, the four men from the shot-up van were handcuffed and pushed face-first into a ditch so they could be searched for weapons.
Threatening to march again, Sharpton said Jersey blacks should be wary of authorities dropping further investigation of Hogan and Kenna in the hope the indictments on the lesser charges would be enough to quell the outrage.
But Greater Trenton was in for a hot summer of racially divided talk centering on the relationship between Trenton's mostly black residents and its police force of mostly white officers who live in the suburbs.
Palmer touched it off by appealing to City Council to get behind his plan to appoint civilians to head the police and fire forces, bypassing the traditional system of chiefs coming up through the ranks.
Well aware it meant taking sides in a dispute between a popular Democratic mayor and Joe Constance — the charismatic deputy police chief in line to be chief, but also the leader of Mercer County's Republican — the councilmen maneuvered Palmer into a call for a referendum on his plan.
The lines were drawn and the vote by the electorate was slated for June 22, which meant both sides had to come up with campaign strategies that got the point across without seeming to inflame racial tensions.
Palmer rarely mentioned the Jenny Hightower or botched drug-raid shootings during the campaign, saying his campaign was about improving the "accountability'' of the police force on "quality of life'' issues like street corners loaded with drug dealers and hookers.
Constance, saying he had become resigned to never making chief despite a past Palmer promise to give him the post, said the campaign was about keeping politics out of police work. Trenton already had a civilian who was boss of the chief of police, the mayor-appointed public safety director, Constance argued.
Appointing new directors from outside the ranks to the top police and fire posts would accomplish nothing substantive, the Constance force said.
It would take an act of Jersey's lethargic legislature, for instance, to require all cops to live where they work, Constance noted. Similarly, he said, changes in long-standing civil service testing procedures might have to be bypassed to bring more black officers into the force.
On June 22, Trentonians voted along racial lines to approve Palmer's plan. Trenton's heavily black West Ward went 6-1 for Palmer, while white Chambersburg and Villa Park sided overwhelmingly for Constance.
Another racial divide in Trenton was displayed for all America to see. And by fall, America would focus again on Trenton, when a new attorney general, John Farmer, announced the indictments of Kenna and Hogan for the turnpike shooting of 18 months earlier.
As the last year of the century comes to a close, Jersey troopers are reacting to the indictments of Kenna and Hogan with fewer arrests and fund-raisers aimed at helping the officers beat the profiling and attempted murder raps.
In Trenton, all the talk of low morale among policemen is apparent from the reduction of drug and other arrests. In a parting shot when he resigned on Friday, Constance said Trenton's police force is about to become dangerously politicized.
So the Jersey volcano continues to rumble, and Trenton and much of the rest of America enters the next century still in disagreement over racial issues that are really only variants of disputes dating back to the founding fathers.
|1999: Racial profiling, racial politics|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|