Driving While Black

Fear & Loathing on the New Jersey Turnpike

''Refusing to acknowledge [the judge's] proven and morally reasonable conclusions, the State Police would rather return to a time when such repugnant assumptions were accepted as justification for discriminatory police action....The State's retreat to stereotype proves...that this is an organization whose culture and values have allowed abuses of power to thrive. It is troubling that the State Police possess the arrogance to ask a court to adopt this throwback to a racist legacy.''

It was just such profiling that allegedly led troopers to pull over the minivan carrying the young basketball players. The troopers said that they flagged down the driver for speeding and opened fire when the van rolled backward and struck one of the troopers and a cruiser. It turned out that the men were on their way to basketball tryouts at North Carolina State University. The troopers recovered a Bible in the backseat.

In the wake of the shooting, scores of blacks, including retired NYPD cop James Powell, have come forward with stories about being demeaned and brutalized during traffic stops on the turnpike. Powell, 56, is suing New Jersey for $5 million for injuries to his back, spinal cord, knee, and wrists and ''negligent infliction of emotional distress, shock, humiliation, embarrassment, pain, and suffering.'' (The state attorney general's office declined comment.)

Last December 5, according to Powell, he was on his way to North Carolina when he noticed two cruisers with red lights flashing behind him. (A state police official once testified in another case that a common technique is to follow a vehicle for a significant distance. When the driver keeps checking the mirror, it causes the car to weave.)

Powell pulled over his 1992 Cadillac Seville, but while waiting for the troopers to approach, he heard a booming voice from the cruiser's loudspeaker order him to put his hands in the air or he would be shot. Powell said he threw up his hands and was told to get out of the car and ''make no sudden moves'' or he would be gunned down. ''I had no doubt that if I had made some type of out-of-the-ordinary move I'd be shot,'' said Powell, who was one of New York's Finest for 14 years.

The troopers allegedly ordered Powell to place his hands over his head, get on his knees, and, for the third time, threatened to shoot him. ''He said after dropping to his knees, his arms were twisted by a trooper, he was handcuffed behind his back, and placed in one of the police vehicles,'' explained Powell's attorney, Pace University law professor Randolph Scott-McLaughlin. He added that the troopers searched Powell's car without his consent and continued to mistreat him even after they discovered his ID, which indicated that he was a retired police officer.

According to Scott-McLaughlin, the troopers had not stopped Powell for any traffic-related infraction but to interrogate him about an earlier dispute in which he was alleged to have threatened some gas station attendants. Powell, who denied threatening the attendants, was arrested, taken to the Moorestown state police barracks, and placed in a holding cell. Scott-McLaughlin argued that the troopers violated Powell's civil rights by stopping his car ''without a reasonable basis to conclude that he had committed a crime or was about to do so.''

Perhaps the New Jersey troopers didn't think they needed to have a reason for stopping James Powell. Former state troopers Kenneth Wilson and Kenneth Ruff testified during a 1996 hearing to suppress the charges brought by the 19 blacks that they were trained to target blacks on the turnpike.

Wilson testified that his instructor, Detective Uke Mannikus, told him that he had determined that Wilson would not, as attorneys Buckman and Loughry put it, ''have a problem stopping blacks....He explained that Wilson would find that blacks were the ones primarily trafficking in drugs. He helped Wilson acclimate himself to looking for cars with southern license tags and young black male passengers, preferably two or three in a vehicle. He taught him to look for reasons to stop a car and for probable cause to 'get into a car.' Wilson testified that a trooper can find a motor vehicle violation for just about any car on the road.''

Mannikus denied ever telling Wilson to single out young black men, and prosecutors insisted that they ''presented extensive testimony about the repeated training and instruction'' given to troopers, who also had been warned that ''racial profiling was strictly forbidden.''

Wilson was one of three troopers indicted in 1989 by a state grand jury in Trenton for allegedly assaulting and stealing money from a group of men stopped by one of the officers on the turnpike. Wilson plea-bargained with prosecutors and turned against his colleagues, who were later acquitted. He testified that he was questioned by two white internal affairs officers who ignored his allegations of racial profiling by fellow troopers.

''When he tried to tell them about racial profiling, he was told to stick to the case at hand, that he was telling them more than they wanted to know,'' asserted Buckman and Loughry in recounting Wilson's testimony.

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