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In June, amid local and national protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Bloomfield officials convened a community meeting on race and policing. Matthew Arnold, a Bloomfield resident and lead organizer of one of those protests, outlined the concerns he had heard from community members. Chief among them: Bloomfield Ave.
“It’s a place that we know has the most police presence. It scares people. People shouldn’t be afraid to drive on the street in our town. And especially not because of our police force,” Arnold said.
It was not the first time officials had heard about racially inequitable policing on Bloomfield Ave.
A study conducted by a team at Seton Hall Law School in 2016 found that the concentration of township police around Bloomfield Ave resulted in a “de facto border patrol” that disproportionately affected Black and Latino residents of Bloomfield and surrounding communities.
The researchers found that 88 percent of traffic stops occurred on or around Bloomfield Ave – where more of the township’s Black and Latino residents reside. The area also borders the predominantly Black communities of Newark and East Orange.
At a June 5 Black Lives Matter protest organized by Arnold and others, an attendee asked Bloomfield Public Safety Director Samuel DeMaio to address the findings of the Seton Hall study. DeMaio pointed to the department’s own data showing that Black, Latino, and white drivers were being stopped at equal rates by township officers.
But that data does not tell the whole story. In fact, it affirms that despite making up less than half of the population of Bloomfield, Black or Latino drivers make up approximately two-thirds of traffic stops.
A new analysis affirms these findings.
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Racially disproportionate stops
An analysis of data from 2016 to 2020 shows that Bloomfield police have been stopping Black and Latino drivers in Bloomfield at twice the rate of white drivers.
Of the 127 officers listed as having conducted stops, 13 of them were more than three times as likely to stop a Black or Latino driver than they were a white driver. Two of those officers – Michael Cumming and Robert Kish – were five times more likely to stop a driver of color than they were a white driver.
Officers most likely to stop a driver of color
These are the top 25 percent of Bloomfield police officers most likely to stop a driver of color during a traffic stop from June 1, 2016 through June 5, 2020.
|Officer||Total stops||BIPOC stops||Black stops||White stops||Likelihood of stopping a BIPOC||Likelihood of stopping a Black person|
And while making up less than one-fifth of the township’s population, Black drivers made up more than one-third of traffic stops.
In a recent interview, DeMaio contended that the department’s officers were not purposefully targeting Black or Latino drivers but that the demographics of the areas in which they receive calls for service explained the racial disparity in traffic stops.
“The makeup of the community the officers are patrolling in is certainly going to have an impact on who it is that they’re having interactions with,” he said.
Before Bloomfield, DeMaio was the police director in Newark, where he expressed similar views after analysis from N.J. American Civil Liberties Union found that the department’s officers were disproportionately stopping and searching Black people.
“It’s not racially-driven profiling,” DeMaio told The Atlantic in a 2014 interview. “It’s crime-driven profiling.”
According to DeMaio, the Bloomfield police department regularly reviews data to see if an officer’s motor vehicle stops are disproportionately affecting drivers of a certain race. If they find a disparity, they review demographic data for the area in which the officer patrols to see if it’s comparable.
By that standard, there is only one area of Bloomfield where the officers most likely to stop Black drivers spent all of their time patrolling. It’s one-tenth of a square mile area with just 1,200 residents surrounding NJ Transit’s Watsessing Ave station.
Officers who stopped Black drivers more than half the time
These are the six Bloomfield police officers who stopped Black drivers more than half the time from June 1, 2016 through June 5, 2020.
|Officers||Total stops||BIPOC stops||Black stops||White stops||Likelihood of stopping a BIPOC||Likelihood of stopping a Black person|
A known issue in Essex County
“People of color in the area know to stay away from Bloomfield Ave,” said Myles Toppin, 21, of Bloomfield.
In December 2017, Toppin was a passenger in a car traveling north on Bloomfield Ave. It was about to cross the border into Glen Ridge when it was stopped by Bloomfield police. The officers said the driver, who was white, ran a red light.
Toppin, who is Black, said the officers inquired about why his pants were tucked into his socks. When they were asked to step out of the car so officers could search it, the driver was only asked to empty his coat pockets.
Toppin was asked to turn around and place his hands on the car to receive a full pat-down. The officers checked his socks and asked him to take off his shoes. It was one of the coldest winters on record at the time.
When the officers didn’t find anything incriminating, they let them go. They did not issue any tickets.
Now, Toppin is a senior at Kean University and more aware of the conditions that may have played a role in the treatment he received.
“At surrounding colleges…there’s little fliers up about nearby streets to not drive down because they racially profile. And Bloomfield Ave is like top of the list,” said Toppin.
“I’m not surprised,” said Michellene Davis, who was a speaker at a community meeting on race hosted by Bloomfield township officials in July. Davis is an executive vice president at the state’s RWJBarnabas healthcare network and leads social impact and community investment across the system.
“It’s not that about a few bad apples. The reason why the discussion is that there are systemic and structural issues is actually because of the way in which policing is done,” Davis said in an interview.
Racially disproportionate policing
Communities are segregated by design, Davis said, citing the work of segregation expert Richard Rothstein, who’s 2017 book The Color of Law outlined decades of public policy that purposefully segregated communities in every metropolitan region of the country.
Coupled with a systemic racial wealth gap, “we [get] these densely populated, [higher] poverty districts, which are also over policed as a result,” said Davis.
Modern systems of policing and incarceration were developed in the U.S. south to maintain white supremacy over newly freed Black people following the Civil War.
Police forces were mostly white, male, and focused more on responding to disorder than crime, according to research from Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Gary Webber.
This resulted in the targeting of allegedly “dangerous classes” like poor people, foreign immigrants, and free Blacks that continues today, according to Webber.
The tendency to police people of color and low-wealth communities is embedded in policing, according to Davis. “Policies from historical institutions are often the codified adaptation of practices.”
Policing in Essex County
Essex County’s first police department was in Newark in 1857. At the time, escaped Black slaves in New Jersey were still expected to be turned over to their masters. This included slaves held by the state’s residents, of which the last few were not freed until 1865.
More than a century later, in 1967, police brutality and racial discrimination sparked the Newark Rebellion, five days of property destruction and police-community violence that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. The uprising – or riot, as it is known to some – led to the election of the city’s first Black mayor after years of white-only rule.
A little more than four decades later, in 2011, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into continued patterns of excessive use of force and discrimination by Newark police officers. Days before, after a 24-year career with the city’s police department, DeMaio was promoted to lead it.
At the time, the N.J. ACLU published an op-ed calling for the release of DeMaio’s disciplinary records, citing his reputation for disrespecting the rights of Newarkers.
DeMaio left the post in 2014. A few months later, the Department of Justice published findings that police in Newark showed a widespread pattern of unconstitutional behavior, including “policing that results in disproportionate stops and arrests of Newark’s Black residents.”
DeMaio was appointed to lead the Bloomfield police department later that year after months of turmoil sparked by two Bloomfield police officers caught beating an unarmed Black man on the Garden State Parkway during an arrest.
In 2013, one of those officers, Orlando Trinidad, nearly ripped the ear off of an unarmed man in the department’s holding area.
In an interview with the Asbury Park Press in 2018, DeMaio said the two officers “were done an injustice by [the Bloomfield] police department,” stating that “there were no systems in place to identify clear signs of the direction that they were heading in.”
When DeMaio took over in 2014, he vowed to professionalize the Bloomfield police department to reduce misconduct and improve community relations.
Since then, the department has won state accreditation, officers wear body cameras, and external complaints have been cut by more than half. Dozens of officers have left the department instead of adapting to the reforms DeMaio has championed, according to him.
But the disproportionate impact on Black and Latino drivers persists. So do the disproportionate outcomes of those interactions.
The likelihood that police will use force against a person of color increases, too. In fact, NJ.com’s Force Report shows that between 2012 and 2016, a Black person in Bloomfield was 83 percent more likely to have force used on them than a white person during an arrest.
National studies show that Black and Latino drivers stopped by police are three times more likely than whites to be searched. And Black drivers are twice as likely to be arrested as white drivers during a stop.
“The very insinuation that there may not be a problem is an act of abuse in and of itself when the data and the outcomes are plain,” according to Joseph Graham, a speaker on diversity, equity, and inclusion at the September 2nd meeting on race hosted by township officials.
Graham is the co-chair and director of Equity and Education for the Visions and Dreams Foundation and grew up in East Orange near the border of Bloomfield in the 1980s.
“As a black person who lived on Ampere Parkway, you knew if you rolled up in Bloomfield that they were biased against Blacks in general and Black men in particular. It was always a point of contention growing up whenever any of my brothers got the age of driving of knowing which streets not to come through [in] Bloomfield trying to get back home to East Orange.”
“There’s no reasonable relationship between [crime in an area] and [lots of traffic stops],” Graham said, “It doesn’t make sense.”
The connection between criminality and racially disparate traffic stops is something that researchers from NYU School of Law studied in Nashville, Tennessee in 2018. They found that “even controlling for crime, unexplained racial disparity still remains” and that “on average, we simply did not find a relationship between stops and crime.”
Community calls for change
“Black and brown people have become so accustomed to it that we don’t complain about it or we don’t really bring it to [people’s] attention…We’re so used to it that it’s like almost a way of life,” said Matt Arnold, the organizer of the June 5th Black Lives Matter protest in Bloomfield and one of the community speakers at the township’s June 10th community meeting on race and policing.
“It’s what you call ‘systemic racism’,” Arnold said. “The system is literally setting us up for failure.”
That system is reflected in the township’s budget, according to Arnold.
Bloomfield’s 2020 municipal budget earmarked $17.2 million dollars for the police department, nearly 20 percent of the township’s annual spending. Just $2.3 million went to health and human services. Parks and recreation received another $578,000.
Reprioritizing Bloomfield’s budget would allow the township to take more equitable approaches to public safety.
FBI statistics show nearly all serious crime in Bloomfield is property crime, non-violent theft that research shows is spurred by wage and wealth inequality. It can be reduced by expanding access to healthcare, creating more green spaces, developing community organizations, and improving local job markets.
Refocusing the township’s budget on such programs is the chief demand of a Change.org petition started by Bloomfield community members in May.
The petition has gained 2,000 signatures and calls for a commitment from the town council to “a gradual process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility from [the Bloomfield police department] to community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”
The town council passed a non-binding resolution in support of social justice on June 8th. That week, Mayor Michael Venezia signed a pledge to adopt a warning before shooting policy. Since then, Bloomfield officials have held five virtual community meetings about race.
They have not taken any overt action to address public requests for anti-racist reform, including addressing the issues associated with policing on Bloomfield Ave or adopting a warning before shooting policy.
- Addressing over policing on and around Bloomfield Ave
- Police policy, budget, and staff transparency
- Review and reallocation of the police budget
- Enacting a warning before shooting
- Taking down the Christopher Columbus across on the town green
- Ending qualified immunity for the town’s officers
- Ending enforcement of non-serious offenses and non-dangerous behavior
We reached out to the Bloomfield’s Civil Rights Commission and mayor’s office with requests for an interview or comment for this story on Sept. 16 and 22. They did not respond by the time of publication.
After an initial conversation with DeMaio on June 19, we sent these 11 questions to him and Internal Affairs head Captain Patsy Spatola on Sept. 16. They also did not respond by the time of publication.
According to Michellene Davis and Joseph Graham, Bloomfield and its police department should conduct an independent audit to determine the extent of systemic racism in the township.
“If we do not apply scrutiny then we will continue to compound the injury,” Davis said. “People aren’t looking for affection, they’re looking for growth.”