New Jersey Attorney General John J. Farmer Jr. announced last week that on November 28th his office will finally make public as many as 80,000 pages of state police records dealing with racial profiling.
The chairman of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, William L. Gormley, had demanded that the records be released. After resisting Gormley's demand for months, Attorney General Farmer announced in September that he would comply.
Gormley had imposed a November 10th deadline for the records' release, but Farmer told the Associated Press on that date that the number of records was larger than expected and his workers kept finding previously undiscovered files, thus necessitating the delay.
Racial profiling refers to selecting drivers by race or ethnicity to be targeted for minor traffic infractions and then searched for drug violations. Racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike had been the subject of national network television broadcasts as early as 1989. Years of complaints about the practice flared into white-hot controversy in April 1998, after two New Jersey state troopers fired on a van carrying four black and Latino men on the New Jersey Turnpike. Three were injured.
The documents could hold more potentially damaging revelations for state police and elected officials, who for years repeatedly denied that they engaged in such tactics, but were then forced to publicly admit that they were wrong.
In April 1999, then Attorney General Peter Verniero admitted that racial profiling was "real, not imagined," and that black and Latino drivers did indeed face discriminatory police attention.
But that was only one of many black-letter days for New Jersey law enforcement officials. A few months earlier, in February 1999, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was forced to fire Police Superintendent Carl A. Williams after he told a newspaper interviewer that minority groups were linked to drug trafficking.
And only days after Verniero's admission, New Jersey law enforcement suffered the indignity of a federal Justice Department investigation of the state police on civil rights grounds. After months of negotiations between the state and the Justice Department, New Jersey was forced to accept a consent decree requiring the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure that the state complies with an agreement to end racial profiling.
The documents could further clarify the roles of various state officials, including Gov. Christy Whitman, in fending off earlier attempts to investigate and halt racial profiling by state troopers along the New Jersey Turnpike.
The New York Times last month examined some 11,000 of the documents already released as part of a lawsuit filed against the state police. The Times' investigation found that as early as 1996, New Jersey law enforcement and elected officials were aware that racial profiling was an ongoing problem, but that instead of rectifying the situation, state police commanders engaged in a defensive strategy of denials.
Of particular interest will be any documents showing what then Attorney General Verniero (since appointed to the state Supreme Court) and Gov. Whitman knew about racial profiling by the state police and when they knew it.
Verniero, in testimony before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, said his concerns about racial profiling did not "crystallize" until after the 1998 shooting. But records perused by the Times indicate that senior members of Verniero's staff were involved in 1996 efforts to uncover racial profiling.
And, according to a police summary of a 1997 meeting, Verniero and then state police commander Colonel Carl Williams, in an effort to avoid "unpleasant surprises," decided to limit data provided to the Justice Department to two state police stations already under fire for racial profiling.
"Decision reached to restrict production of data to Moorestown and Cranbury stations," wrote the state police sergeant who took notes on the January 10, 1997 meeting.
Gov. Whitman has claimed that she had no evidence of racial profiling until early 1999, and the records released so far do not include any memorandums to or from either Whitman or Verniero. Such documents could be among those to be released later this month, but lawyers for the state have claimed that thousands of documents are exempt from disclosure. Whether memos between Whitman and Verniero are included will not be known until the document release is reviewed.