Driving While Black

Fear & Loathing on the New Jersey Turnpike


It is a 148-mile stretch of asphalt that some black motorists refer to as “White Man’s Pass.” In their journeys along this dreaded roadway, which connects New York City with New Jersey and other points on the I-95 corridor, these motorists complain they are often catapulted headlong into an explosive collision with race, crime, and the law.

Since 1988—and possibly long before that—state police have been “engaged in a program of racial targeting” on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to court documents in a pending case against 19 black men and women who, in a joint motion, claimed they were illegally targeted, stopped, searched, and arrested by troopers on the turnpike in Gloucester County between January 1988 and April 1991. Allegedly, the troopers target blacks, especially those driving luxury cars such as BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Lexuses. The state police assert that it is a trumped-up conflict and deny they practice such a policy: if anything, they insist, their actions amount to nothing more than aggressive enforcement of traffic regulations. But for blacks, who experts say are nearly five times more likely than whites to be stopped on the turnpike, it is a case of constantly being picked on for DWB—Driving While Black.

O. J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran and other civil rights leaders maintain that this racially selective policing resulted in two white troopers firing 11 shots at four unarmed minority basketball players in a late-model Dodge Caravan they had stopped on the turnpike on April 23 near Exit 7A in Mercer County. Seriously injured in the April 23 incident, which attracted national attention, were Rayshawn Brown, 20, and Leroy G. Grant, 23, both of Manhattan, and Danny Reyes, 21, of Queens. The driver, Keshon L. Moore, 22, of Queens, was not hit. No charges have yet been filed in the incident, which is being investigated by a state grand jury.

A startling development in the case last Friday seemed to cast doubt on the assertions of discrimination made by Cochran, who is representing three of the men. Wayne D. Greenfeder, the white attorney for Rayshawn Brown, who was shot twice, told the Associated Press he is not sure racial profiling led to the traffic stop.

Seeking to reinforce the contention that overt racism is responsible for wide disparities between minorities and whites in police stops, the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey last week reached a tentative accord with New Jersey state police superintendent Colonel Carl A. Williams to have video cameras mounted in all state police cruisers to monitor stops. Asking troopers to police themselves, however, may strike a raw nerve with the New York City-based 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement and the New Jersey-based Black Cops Against Police Brutality, whose members have been threatened with arrest by the Turnpike Authority if they violate “restrictions on filming, photographing and videotaping on the Turnpike.”

“State Police will fully enforce these regulations,” Turnpike executive director Edward Gross warned in a May 22 letter to Black Cops Against Police Brutality.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a defiant Eric Adams, who heads Blacks in Law Enforcement, and his partner Michael Greys left behind their NYPD-issued Glock 9mm pistols, armed themselves with video cameras, and took to patrolling the New Jersey highways in Greys’s Mercedes-Benz, looking for troopers who stalk innocent black motorists. Fifty other off-duty NYPD officers linked up with black cops and corrections officers from Trenton and Philadelphia and positioned themselves along suspected DWB checkpoints. “We notified these troopers that if we found anything suspicious we would film it, so I guess they were on their best behavior,” said Adams, adding that the black cops will conduct unannounced random patrols in the future.

TWO YEARS AGO, New Jersey Superior Court judge Robert E. Francis found that racial profiling “was tolerated and in certain ways encouraged at the highest levels in the State Police hierarchy, according to lawyers for the 19 blacks who consolidated their cases in 1990 to fight the charges. Declaring that the state police practiced “selective enforcement” during that period, Francis ruled that if the troopers had any evidence against the defendants it had been obtained illegally and must be suppressed. Many of the defendants, supposedly stopped for speeding, were in cars in which it was alleged that drugs, guns, and other contraband were found. Prosecutors are fighting to reinstate charges, and the case is now before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.

“Indeed, this wrong decision has already encouraged many other defendants to pursue similar motions regarding stops on other highways in this state,” the New Jersey attorney general’s office complained in court papers. “[The] defendants utterly failed to prove their pernicious and baseless allegations of racially motivated selective prosecution.”

In legal papers opposing the state’s appeal, William H. Buckman and Justin Loughry, who represent four of the motorists, claim that “to this day the State Police attempts to justify its actions and record … on the Jim Crow notion that at least on the Turnpike blacks are inferior, that they drive worse, and that they therefore attract disproportionate police attention.”

The lawyers argued that state police wanted Judge Francis to “believe that blacks drive worse because they are stopped more. This ‘logic’ is … morally repugnant. Yet it is the essence of the State’s case. Without a shred of evidence, it seeks to blame en masse the victims of a State Police scheme to target blacks … on the 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.

Ruff testified he was told to always “look beyond the motor vehicle stop [when it involved] a Black man. However, Ruff did not have a strong interest in criminal enforcement and declined to engage in profiling,” according to the lawyers.

“While on patrol, he often observed troopers [parked] perpendicular to the road … with the high beams or spot-lights on and trained on the turnpike,” Buckman and Loughry wrote. “He often saw a car pulled onto the side of the road by another trooper, with the occupants out of the car, and could tell from the radio transmissions that the stop had not been called in. Sometimes he would stop to render backup in these situations, only to be waved off … In some of those situations he would observe a trooper known to engage in profiling pull up to assist and not be waved off.”

In the fall of 1989, after WOR-TV investigative reporter Joe Collum’s Without Just Cause uncovered massive evidence of state police racial profiling on the turnpike, Clinton Pagano, a top state police official, compiled an internal report claiming that “black people of American, Jamaican, and Nigerian background, and Hispanic people … are the people bringing drugs into and transporting them through New Jersey.” A major portion of Pagano’s report, which wound up in the hands of troopers throughout the state, was devoted to so-called intelligence on Jamaican posses. (Pagano, who served at the discretion of the governor, was replaced in 1991.)

According to Buckman and Loughry, troopers in training were shown a video of Jamaicans that one state police official “admitted was an unsubstantiated and fictionalized presentation intended to impart … that Jamaican posse members are violent. Without attribution or disclaimer, the ‘training’ film featured scenes from a sensationalized, fictional motion picture entitled ‘The Harder They Come.’”

“One such scene portrayed a Black man slashing another Black man with a knife,” the lawyers wrote. “Other portions of the training video showed … news footage of political rioting in Kingston [that had] nothing to do with drug trafficking. The video also showed a likeness of a Black man with dreadlocks in his hair wearing Jamaican-like garb followed by shots of the same black man with short, well-groomed hair and business attire. The voice-over warned that Jamaican posse members can disguise themselves to be indistinguishable from a professional black man.”

Racial profiling for black “drug couriers” may have resulted in the arrest of another police veteran on the Florida Turnpike. The key evidence in the case against Miami-Dade County police major Aaron Campbell was a videotape of Campbell’s April 9, 1997, encounter with overzealous white sheriff’s deputies. Campbell’s apprehension for resisting arrest and battery of a police officer was shown on national TV. He would later tell a jury he felt he had been unfairly targeted and stopped by the deputies because he was a black man. The 27-year police veteran maintained that the incident occurred only because the deputies were using a drug-courier profile when they pulled him over for changing lanes without signaling. He said that once they stopped him, the deputies used excessive force, and that he resisted them only in self-defense. A six-member jury convicted Campbell of resisting arrest, but cleared him of a felony charge of using violence.

THE PRACTICE OF RACIAL PROFILING on the New Jersey Turnpike allegedly has been finessed by some inventive troopers. If a vehicle is headed north, the profiler assumes the occupants are Colombian drug dealers ferrying their contraband to New York. If it’s southbound, it contains crack headed for the Carolinas.

Yet even the best racial profilers frequently miss their mark. From 1984 to 1988, Dr. Elmo Randolph, a black dentist from East Orange, New Jersey, who drove a gold-colored BMW, testified on behalf of the 19 blacks that he was stopped by the state police approximately 100 times on the turnpike.

“He was never issued a ticket or a written warning on any of those occasions,” according to the attorneys, who recount the doctor’s travails in their case histories. “While traveling the Turnpike he would see the troopers sitting perpendicular [to the road] in a cutout where Route 80 feeds into the Turnpike … to observe traffic. After dark, troopers would train their headlights and/or spotlights onto the highway so that they could look into cars.

“Dr. Randolph frequently observed troopers stop black motorists at night using that method. Most of the times that he was stopped, the trooper would obtain his … credentials and go back to the [cruiser]. He would return shortly with the credentials to the passenger’s side of the vehicle. Dr. Randolph would lower his window to be handed the credentials, and the trooper would … look around inside his car. He would be allowed to go on his way, after brief questioning, in most of these instances.”

On several of the stops, however, the officers asked Randolph to open the trunk of his car. “The troopers never asked to search his trunk, but rather they asked him to open it or if they could look in … On one occasion, when he refused to allow the trooper to [look in the trunk], the officer returned to the [cruiser] and sat there with his credentials for 15 or 20 minutes before returning them … and allowing him to go on his way. Dr. Randolph learned that it was easier to simply allow troopers to look in his trunk than to assert his constitutional rights. He could not afford to be late for his patients.”  ❖




This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 19, 2021

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