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Center for Health Research Team

Students Make an Impact in the Fight Against Racial Profiling

A groundbreaking report produces much-needed change in police practices in a nearby New Jersey town

“This is the kind of work I came to law school to do,” said Capri Reid ‘17, a Fellow in the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy & Research.

Reid was among the 21 Fellows who conducted an exhaustive study in fall 2015 of the traffic enforcement practices in the nearby Township of Bloomfield, New Jersey. The Fellows’ resulting report, “Racial Profiling: Bloomfield Police and Bloomfield Municipal Court,” detailed how the police have issued traffic tickets disproportionately to people of color in a town despite the majority of residents being white. Most tickets were issued at the borders of Bloomfield, adjacent to towns with predominately minority populations.

The Report triggered much soul-searching in Bloomfield.  On May 31, the Star-Ledger reported that the Bloomfield’s patrol force will soon be equipped with body cameras to record their interactions with the public. The article, entitled, ”After accusations of bias, all Bloomfield patrol cops to wear a body camera,” noted that this change of policy “after the department has been riddled with accusations of racial profiling, including a Seton Hall study that claimed minorities drivers were stopped disproportionately by township police.”  

“Our report was a six-month effort designed to arrive at the truth, and that enable us to use our findings to drive change,” Reid said. “Now that Bloomfield police are required to wear body cameras while on patrol, they can be held accountable for their actions.”

Professor Mark P. Denbeaux, who directs the Center for Policy & Research, discussed the impetus for “Racial Profiling: Bloomfield Police and Bloomfield Municipal Court.” “Our students came to me last year after they stood vigil for each of the African Americans who died in police custody in 2015,” said Professor Denbeaux. “Vigils were good, but not enough. Since the deaths resulted directly from police stops, we decided to investigate the extent of racial profiling.  We chose to study Bloomfield simply because it was convenient to the law school.” 

Center for Policy & Research Fellows focused on the race and ethnicity of defendants in Bloomfield’s traffic court, sitting in the courtroom over a four-week period in fall 2015 to observe the proceedings. They also reviewed a database of the 9,715 tickets issued in Bloomfield to unique drivers over a 12-month period, mapping the incidence of ticketing in Bloomfield by region and neighborhood and corroborating the courtroom observation data.

“Given the demographics of both Bloomfield and New Jersey generally, we expected representation in the courtroom to be around 60 percent white,” said Fadja Tassy ‘18. “Instead, we found the reverse: of the nearly 800 defendants we observed in the courtroom, 78 percent of the defendants in the courtroom were African Americans and Latinos.”

“This type of discrimination is corrosive and demeaning,” Professor Denbeaux noted. “During one of our days in court, one of my students, who is African American, looked around the room and then she turned to me, very upset. She said, ‘Everyone here looks like me. Nobody looks like you.’”

“Traffic tickets proved to be a lucrative revenue source for the Township,” added Kelley Kearns ’18. “African Americans and Latinos were cited 7,566 times during the year of the study in 2015. At an average cost of $137 apiece, not counting surcharges, the total paid by African Americans and Latinos would amount to more than $1 million. Meanwhile, the salaries paid in the municipal court doubled from $350,000 in 2014 to $761,000 in 2015."

The report was issued in April and triggered a wave of national media attention, including a front page story in the Star-Ledger and a documentary broadcast by VICE News. In response, Bloomfield officials hosted multiple town hall meetings and conducted private meetings with civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, to review the findings and evaluate the research methods employed by the Fellows.

“Our report generated substantial controversy among Bloomfield Township officials and was a point of contention in the recent mayoral election,” said Professor Denbeaux. “They questioned our methodology, but their own investigation corroborated our findings.”

“It’s gratifying that our report led to an important dialogue within Bloomfield about its police practices, and ultimately helped lead to the Township equipping their force with body cameras,” concluded Reid. “This is the kind of impact I’ve always wanted to have.”