Cops targeting blacks for petty crimes, a shameless trend | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on December 27, 2015

If you still believe the distrust of law enforcement by minorities is exaggerated in New Jersey, here is another alarm bell that demonstrates how cops are not colorblind when it comes to enforcing the law.

The ACLU examined 10 years of arrest data from four cities on the enforcement of petty crimes – loitering, marijuana possession (50 grams or less), trespassing, and disorderly conduct – offenses that generally require the most discretion on the part of the officer.

It found a reprehensible trend of racial profiling and selective enforcement.

In Jersey City, where the population is 25 percent African American, 58 percent of those arrested for low-level crimes were black. That means they were nearly five times more likely to be busted for a petty crime than whites, which accounted for 12 percent of the low-level arrests.

A similar disparity existed in Elizabeth, where blacks were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested than whites; New Brunswick, where they were 3.2 times more likely; and in Millville in Cumberland County, where blacks were 6.2 times more likely to be arrested.

Add that up, and it's not hard to conclude that there is a shameful pattern of minorities "disproportionately bearing the brunt of police practices that target low-level offenses," as ACLU Executive Director Udi Ofer put it.

We've let this wound fester far too long in our state, and it's time to put an end to it.

It was the ACLU that blew the whistle on Newark's stop-and-frisk policy four years ago, leading to mandatory Federal oversight after a blistering Justice Department rebuke of racial bias in its policing.

These new disclosures deserve rigorous review from our own Attorney General, because confidence in law enforcement is cratering: An FDU poll from May found that 55 percent of African Americans in New Jersey have little or no trust that cops treat people of color fairly.

Enough damage has already been done. Arrests and convictions after low-level offenses lead to financial burdens and a permanent criminal records; and in some cases the loss of income, housing, child custody, and immigration status.

The ACLU proposes sensible reforms, starting with a demand for better data collection: Most departments do not even keep track of how many arrests are made or the demographics of the people arrested.

Consider: Half of Elizabeth's population is Latino, but it does not collect data on Latinos. Jersey City's information from 2011 was so haphazard, it produced three different sets of data . And Asbury Park's record keeping was so horrendous, the ACLU couldn't include it in the study.

The ACLU also suggests that local departments pass anti-profiling laws and de-emphasize low-level offenses, as it learned that 95 percent of the low-level arrests in this study never related to any "serious" crime, as defined by the FBI.

And our legislature can pitch in by repealing laws related to marijuana possession, because that would end much of this selective enforcement, as evidence shows blacks and whites use the drug at similar rates.

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