Carson Dunbar: The head of the New Jersey State Police is a man in the middle
|April 27, 2001|
(TRENTON, N.J.) – As superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, Col. Carson Dunbar is at ground zero for racial profiling.
He is also the first African-American to head the agency and the first outsider. Dunbar joined the FBI after a few years as a state trooper in the 1970s. Former Gov. Christie Whitman convinced him to return to New Jersey to replace Carl Williams, who was pressured to resign after he made racially charged remarks in a newspaper interview.
Dunbar sees his job as changing at least parts of the culture of the state’s most prominent law enforcement agency.
"The first thing that has to happen is that police officers are going to have to understand that we're in the new age and that pretty everything that we do is going to be scrutinized,” he said in a recent interview. “We're in a society where umpires and officials are challenged every day." Racial profiling has been an issue in New Jersey for more than a decade. In the late 1980s, a television station, WWOR-Channel 9, reported that the overwhelming majority of those arrested for drugs on the New Jersey Turnpike were black, even though most drivers were white, and suggested that troopers were targeting black motorists.
In the same period, several troopers were charged with assaulting drivers or manufacturing evidence. In one case, a black Maryland resident’s urine sample was discovered to contain cocaine that had never passed through a human digestive system in a concentration so high that he would have been dead if he had ingested it. The accused troopers were acquitted, but the evidence of police misconduct was overwhelming, even if prosecutors could not link it to individual officers.
Another legal case put racial profiling front and center again a few years later when a judge in South Jersey threw out scores of drug cases. The judge found that troopers at the Moorestown barracks, which polices the south end of the turnpike, had pulled drivers over solely because of their race. Then, in April 1999, two state troopers shot and wounded three unarmed black and Hispanic men who were traveling to a basketball clinic in North Carolina.
After fighting a federal investigation of the state police, the Whitman administration changed its position, releasing a report that acknowledged profiling and signing a consent decree with the Justice Department. Racial profiling has also come close to bringing down a justice on the state Supreme Court. Peter Verniero, who served as attorney general before he was named to the court in 1999, testified recently before a state Senate committee investigating racial profiling. On Thursday, the speaker of the state Assembly announced that he had decided against seeking Verniero’s impeachment for alleged lies during earlier hearings but called on Verniero to resign from the court.
The hearings also included testimony from the current attorney general, John Farmer, that racial profiling continues. Farmer cited statistics that black and Hispanic drivers pulled over on the turnpike are far more likely to be subjected to be subjected to consent searches – while troopers find drugs far more often when they search vehicles driven by whites.
Dunbar and Farmer believe that reforms already underway will bring needed changes. They include recruiting more black, Hispanic and female troopers, improving training and tightening procedures for recording traffic stops and consent searches.
“We’ve probably had the most intense recruiting campaign that the state police has ever had,” Dunbar said.
Many of Dunbar’s harshest critics are black troopers and state legislators who believe he has not provided the leadership that the state police needs.
“It’s an agency that’s out of control, it’s autonomous,” said Assemblyman William D. Payne, a Democrat who represents Newark, New Jersey’s largest city.
As Dunbar testified before the Senate committee, a group of black current and former troopers held a news conference with Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer best known for his successful defense of O.J. Simpson. They displayed samples of racist posters and flyers found in state police barracks, some recently and some more than a decade ago. The troopers and their lawyers claimed that the creators of the older work are not only still on the force but in senior positions.
Dunbar believes that most of the problems, both internally and externally, come from a small group of troopers.
And he says that he has also been a victim of racial profiling. When he was an FBI agent, driving an FBI vehicle, he was pulled over on Interstate 80 for speeding. While Dunbar acknowledges that he was doing about 60, five miles per hour above the 55 mph speed limit, he says he was driving no faster than the other cars around him.
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