Police had no apparent constitutional basis for at least three-quarters of pedestrian stops in Newark, New Jersey, a three-year U.S. Department of Justice review concluded this week. That finding was just the top line of a report that also found gross racial disparities in those stops, a pattern of excessive force, retaliation against suspects, and officer theft from suspects during stops.
“Our investigation uncovered troubling patterns in stops, arrests and use of force by the police in Newark,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The findings come almost a year after a New York federal judge found that city engaged in unconstitutional racial profiling in its stops and frisks. Under the Fourth Amendment, officers are permitted to stop individuals if they have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. But the DOJ report found that officers rarely met this basic standard — if they even justified their stops at all.
In about one-sixth of the cases analyzed by DOJ, officers didn’t record any reason at all for their stops. In cases when they did record a reason, seven-five percent of stops in which the reason was recorded were found to be constitutionally deficient by the Department of Justice. The most common reasons given for stops were merely that individuals were observed “milling, “loitering,” or “wandering,” without any description of suspected criminal activity. “Without any indicator of criminal activity or suspicion of an intent to engage in criminal activity, these reasons do not constitute reasonable suspicion to detain an individual, and are therefore constitutionally deficient,” the Justice Department found.
Community members have come to expect these suspicionless stops, and one called it “just part of living in Newark.”
These stops have a dramatic disproportionate impact on African Americans, the Justice Department found. Although blacks comprise 54 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 85 percent of pedestrian stops, and 79 percent of arrests. Blacks in Newark are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped than whites, 2.7 times more likely to be searched, and 3.1 times more likely to be frisked, the Justice Department found.
“Yet, according to the NPD’s documentation, the likelihood that a search or frisk by the NPD recovers evidence is essentially the same for both racial groups,” the report found. “Thus, not only are the unconstitutional stop practices of the NPD falling most heavily on black individuals, but those massively additional stops are not yielding more evidence of crime. In other words, the stops are both impermissible and ineffective.”
“[I]t is clear that, whether intentional or not, Newark’s black residents bear the brunt of NPD’s unlawful stops practices,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels in prepared remarks.
The Department also found that some 20 percent of excessive force allegations “appeared to be unreasonable and in violation of the Constitution,” while almost none of them were deemed problematic by the Department. Among the incidents flagged by the report were punching of a suspect that left him with a concussion, and slamming individuals to the ground in a chokehold after they lawfully questioned police actions. The Newark Police Department has sustained just one allegation of excessive force over the course of six years.
The DOJ also found that NPD had conducted “generally incomplete” investigations of all 29 police shootings between May 2010 and May 2012. “The NPD’s weak investigations of officer-involved shootings provide a patina of oversight that is wholly insufficient to determine whether shootings are justified,” DOJ found. “… By not conducting thorough investigations followed by appropriate disciplinary action when warranted, the NPD fails to deter officers from using deadly force unnecessarily and decreases public confidence that the NPD is exercising appropriate supervision and review.”
Newark’s internal review process has come under fire for several years, after a 2011 ACLU review found that out of 261 complaints filed over the course of two years on excessive force or improper policing, only one was sustained. The Justice Department found a laundry list of flaws both in the Department’s internal review, and in the city’s policies and training.
Last summer as New York City was facing the class action lawsuit challenging its stop-and-frisk program, Newark announced a program to publish monthly data on stop-and-frisks. Now it has committed to a host of other changes in a settlement agreement that should avert a Justice Department lawsuit. Like New York City, Newark will now be subject to monitoring by federal authorities.