Traffic Stops and Profiling

Newsday had an interesting article regarding racial profiling and attempts in New Jersey to measure how state troopers were managing their stops. Several years ago, the New Jersey State Police were placed under a consent decree by the Justice Department after allegations arose from a shooting and misconduct on the part of some of their officers who were alleged to have stopped individuals because of their race. According to the Justice Department investigation and subsequent decree, this was found to be true.

The current report found in the link above provides the findings of the most recent study and the discussion between the various stakeholders involved in the process. As you can imagine, there is a difference of opinion between the various groups. It is an example of the challenges communities face in dealing with issues such as profiling, better known as bias based policing.

I think the latter term is more encompassing of the issue and the dilemma created. How is the community assured that police are applying all services and assistance in a community or geographical area fairly and on an equal basis but still performing the enforcement function necessary.

In the case of traffic stops, new technology allows for better documentation of traffic stops conducted by officers. This provides a documented record of the interaction of the officers and traffic violator. In Northfield, our officers document all traffic stops through our dispatch center. They record the reason the vehicle was stopped, the gender and race of the driver and if they conducted a vehicle search or not. The date, time and location of the stop is also recorded should there be a question about the vehicle stop at a later time.

Shortly after my arrival in Northfield, I asked members of our Human Rights Commission to regularly review our incident reports. Not that I feel our staff is doing anything wrong, on the contrary, I feel our officers do an excellent job of fairly conducting our business in the community, but is a good idea to have a fresh set of eyes to view activities for any perceived patterns or concerns. Additionally, we were one of the first agencies to have a policy outlining a procedure to prevent profiling activities and how to respond to citizen inquiries or complaints about possible profiling incidents. Our staff regularly receives training in the area of bias based policing and profiling issues.

I have also reinforced my belief to our staff that the real issue as it pertains to traffic stops is the use of a pretext stop. A pretext stop is when an officer stops a vehicle for a minor traffic violation such as a burned out headlight and then proceeds to ask the driver to search the vehicle without any cause to believe there are drugs or other forms of contraband in the vehicle. Some people would call this a fishing expedition.

It is important that we encourage officers to perform their jobs and prevent crime. I know that 99% of the officers in this country do their jobs well and with a high degree of ethical conduct.

With safeguards in place and by establishing a solid working relationship with our communities and stakeholders, police officers can meet the responsibilities of accountability and still perform their jobs.

About Gary Smith

Chief Smith has served over 31 years in the criminal justice field. He is currently a consultant assisting public and private organizations better establish community goals and ethical conduct with the members of their organizations. Chief Smith serves as a facilitator, lecturer, professor and other capacities both inside and outside the criminal justice field.
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