The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee this week began hearings on racial profiling -- the practice of stopping and searching motorists based on their race -- and state officials' response to the now disavowed practice. Testimony by state police officials and members of the state attorney general's office has contradicted earlier claims by state officials -- particularly former Attorney General Peter Verniero -- who have testified that they had no knowledge of the practice until 1998.
Verniero, now a state Supreme Court justice who barely survived his confirmation hearing as the racial profiling controversy swirled around him, testified at those hearings that he did not know about the policy until after the April 1998 shooting of three black and Hispanic men by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. With that incident, racial profiling exploded into a nation-wide civil rights issue.
But a line of state police officials told lawmakers Monday that they had been supplying racial profiling data to Verniero and his aides since 1996. On Tuesday, two deputy attorneys general testified that Verniero and other top state officials were so anxious about bad publicity that they discouraged aides from providing data that confirmed the extent of the problem.
Sgt. Thomas Gilbert, the state trooper assigned to collect racial profiling data beginning in that year, said he regularly delivered "explosive" reports on the practice to the attorney general's office. He also testified that he had attended two meetings with top state officials, including then Attorney General Verniero, to discuss the topic many months before the April 1998 shootings.
Sgt. Baker and retired State Police Capt. David Blaker also told the committee that although the data they had collected and presented to Verniero showed an unusually high number of minorities had been subjected to searches, Verniero vowed never to negotiate a consent decree with the Justice Department, which had intervened in 1996 as the practice of racial profiling scandal began to draw increasing notice.
Gilbert told the committee he began gathering racial profiling data in 1996, after a judge in Gloucester County found a pattern of racial profiling in traffic stops on the southern part of the New Jersey Turnpike. By the end of that year, he said, the data clearly showed racial disparities. "At this point," Sgt. Gilbert wrote to a superior, "we're in a very bad spot."
Gilbert also testified that in December 1996, he was summoned to a Christmas Eve meeting with Verniero and his aides, where the participants discussed strategies for dealing with the Justice Department inquiry.
Deputy Attorney General George Rover, whose job it was to provide racial profiling statistics to the Justice Department, told the committee he was ordered by superiors to passively obstruct the federal review. He was instructed to supply Justice only with documents it had specifically requested, he said.
Although Verniero has claimed that he only learned racial profiling was "real, not imagined" after the 1998 shootings, Rover and Deputy Attorney John Fahy both testified to the contrary. Fahy told the committee that as early as the Justice Department investigation in December 1996, Verniero realized racial profiling was a problem for New Jersey prosecutors. In January 1997, Fahy testified, a letter he wrote to the Justice Department for Verniero to sign was sent with the paragraph dealing with police searches deleted --without his knowledge, Fahy added.
Rover told the committee that then executive assistant attorney general Alexander Waugh, Jr. told him not to send documents to the Justice Department unless the department specifically asked for them. Rover said the practice continued under Waugh's successor, David Hespe.
According to Rover, Hespe told him, "Don't turn it over. Tell them we're working on something. Let me know if they call again."
This week's testimony is only strengthening the case that New Jersey officials, and Verniero in particular, not only attempted to sabotage the Justice Department investigation, but also studiously avoided reviewing the racial profiling data themselves. The political firestorm over what the state of New Jersey knew and when it knew it will only increase next week. Verniero is scheduled to be the final witness.
The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee has hearing transcripts, notes, and other evidence available at http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/apjud.htm online. DRCNet has posted extensive documents on racial profiling released by the New Jersey Attorney General's office late last year, available at http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/njprofiling/ online.