By Erin Delmore
If you sat in the municipal courthouse in Bloomfield for a day or two, you’d notice that the majority of people responding to tickets — eight in 10 — are black or Latino. So says one group of Seton Hall Law School students and its professor who did just that over the course of four weeks last fall.
“Our position was that if we had a collection of ordinary students sitting in a courtroom, looking at people and trying to make a judgment of their race and ethnicity, that would be all the police would have to look at also,” said Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research Director Mark Denbeaux.
Their report on racial profiling analyzed court appearances and compared those observations with a data set of the nearly 10,000 tickets issued by police over 12 months.
“I think they engage in racial profiling especially in the low portion of Bloomfield right on the edge of Newark and East Orange,” Denbeaux said.
Bloomfield is home to some 47,000 residents. The town borders the predominately white, upscale suburbs of Montclair and Glen Ridge and the diverse, urban centers of Newark and East Orange. The report charges the Bloomfield PD with running a “border patrol”.
“My students said, ‘My God, Newark has the shortest, smallest border with Bloomfield of any town.’ East Orange is bigger, Glen Ridge is bigger, all of them are much bigger. Newark has that tiny little spot, and all the tickets are there,” Denbeaux said.
The Seton Hall team says those fines are a cash cow for the town — garnering more than a million dollars paid by African-Americans and Latinos.
“And you see just how many hours of work someone making, if they’re lucky, $10, $12 an hour has to work to pay off $137 fine,” said Jason Castle.
Teaneck Councilman and first-year law student Castle is on the research team.
When asked if he’s ever been pulled over, Castle said, “Yes.” How does it feel? “When you’re pulled over with cause, often times you know hen you’re pulled over that you’ve done something wrong. No harm, no foul. I ran that stop sign, there’s any number of things you can do that warrant being pulled over. When you’re being pulled over and it’s clear that you’re being pulled over because of the way you look, someone is attributing some negative stereotype, attributing some negative factor to you, and that’s the impetus for them pulling you over so that they can later find a violation. It’s a bit demoralizing,” he said.
No one from the Bloomfield Police Department was available for an interview, but they sent a statement calling the study “deeply flawed” and saying, “the report leaves out significant data and ignores basic rules of policing.”
The Bloomfield Police Department says three out of every four crimes last year occurred in the southern part of town. In response they deployed 75 to 80 percent of their police force there. And with more officers in the area there’s more work getting done in all sectors of police service including pulling over drivers.
The Seton Hall team is planning to replicate the study in different parts of the state. Meanwhile, the Bloomfield Police Department has invited the students to meet with officials to observe and discuss about police work in town.