A viral video of two teens fighting at a New Jersey mall – and the stark difference in how responding police officers treated the pair – is prompting harsh criticism from politicians and activists who say it is fresh evidence of Garden State law enforcement’s inequitable treatment of Black people.

It is also jump-starting new discussion around racial profiling and how to get police to break the habit.

The footage recorded February 12th shows two teens – one a 14-year-old Black male and the other a 15-year-old initially described as a white male – arguing at Bridgewater Commons Mall. Their heated exchange quickly turns to punches and then wrestling to the ground. Two white police officers quickly intervene, but they only handcuff the Black teen.

The controversy has prompted two investigations, along with a Friday letter from New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin reminding police agencies of a state directive barring “racially-influenced policing.” The video has sparked calls for the firing of the two police officers, including at a Saturday protest outside Bridgewater Township police headquarters.

The incident follows a sordid history in New Jersey on the use of force and disproportionate policing of Black people. A federal monitor was imposed on the New Jersey State Police in 1999 after decades of racial profiling. Black people in New Jersey are incarcerated at a rate 12 times that of white people, NJ.com reported in October, citing updated findings by the prison-reform advocacy group The Sentencing Project. And while the state has taken steps to reduce its prison population, the racial disparity in New Jersey's prisons is the worst in the nation, according to the group’s 2021 report.

“This is something African Americans in New Jersey experience too often,” NAACP New Jersey State Conference President Richard Smith said.

To call it implicit means, 'Oh, of course no one intended this.' And I think that's a generous interpretation
Professor Jeffrey Butts

Video of the encounter has racked up millions of views and shares online. It shows a responding female officer quickly easing the 15-year-old – identified by mycentraljersey.com as a 10th-grader from Raritan who is Hispanic – onto a couch. She then joins her male partner in kneeling on the back of the Black teen, identified by his attorney as an eighth-grader from Somerville who is being handcuffed. The 15-year-old is left unrestrained, and for a brief moment the backs of both officers are turned to him. He gets up off the couch and stands over the scrum in front of him.

For professor Jeffrey Butts of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has spent years studying juvenile justice, the video is clear evidence of the disparate treatment accorded young Black people by police, long a concern of activists and policymakers across New Jersey. The urgency was driven home by an award-winning NJ.com investigation three years ago that found a Black person was more than three times more likely to face police force than someone who is white.

"There's a term that people use in crime and justice called implicit bias," Butts said. "This was an example of explicit bias, where you could actually see it on video, how they just descended upon the youth of color and told the [other] youth to sit down or basically back off and did not accost him or confront him physically. Pretty obvious."

He added: "To call it implicit means, 'Oh, of course no one intended this.' And I think that's a generous interpretation.”

The video has been widely shared on Twitter, YouTube, CNN, ABC, and local news outlets, and prompted an internal affairs investigation by Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, in addition to an inquiry by Platkin’s office.

Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday he was “deeply disturbed by what appears to be racially disparate treatment in the video.” He noted the work in New Jersey to improve trust and relations between police departments and the communities they serve; the state in recent years has instituted a host of reforms aimed at bolstering police accountability and transparency in the reporting and investigation of alleged police misconduct, including excessive force.

But the governor acknowledged more work needed to be done.

“We have to let the investigation play out,” Murphy said. “The appearance of what is racially disparate treatment is deeply, deeply disturbing, and it's just another reminder that the progress we've made on the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve … that our work is not done and we need to continue that.”

Shanel Robinson, Somerset County commissioner-director, said in a YouTube video that as the first African American to serve in that role she was “heartbroken by the video that shows an African American teenager being handcuffed by police while the other teenager is being treated as the victim.”

The governing body’s liaison to constitutional officers, courts and criminal justice, Robinson said she discussed the incident with both Murphy and Platkin, “and we all agree that the video of the incident … is upsetting and that there must be a full investigation to uncover all the facts and deliver accountability.”

The NAACP’s Smith issued a statement calling for the immediate removal of the officers. "The time for the governor and attorney general to put a stop to this type of behavior by the police is now,” Smith said.

Neither the state attorney general’s office nor the township police department would comment on the status of the officers. In his Friday letter to law enforcement agency heads across the state, Platkin said he would not comment on details of the investigation. But he added this: “Regardless of that investigation’s outcome, even the appearance of racially disparate treatment is detrimental to community and law enforcement relations, and to public confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Bridgewater Township Mayor Matthew Moench told local residents in a letter it would be inappropriate for township officials to comment while the incident was under investigation. It thanked “the public for its patience in refraining from jumping to conclusions while an investigation is pending." In a Facebook post, the police department asked that anyone with video of the fight to share it with the department at tips@bridgewaterpd.com.

Michael Brownstein, an associate professor in philosophy at John Jay who studies implicit bias, said that trainings designed to undo bias in law enforcement are "not going to do anything if the people you're working with don't want to be unbiased or don't see themselves as potentially acting in prejudiced ways."

While implicit bias training takes place at law enforcement agencies across the country, Brownstein said, "the research on the effectiveness of those trainings is very mixed."

"Some are done in a science-based way," he said, "and some really aren't."

Butts said such cases present difficult choices for policymakers.

“The harsh response, which would be the American style, would be to increase punishment for people who show evidence of bias — police officers," Butts said. "A more productive approach would be to be much more conscious of recruiting and training and enlistment in law enforcement, and to spend time trying to detect someone's proclivity toward bias, toward violence, toward using physical dominance to win an argument.”

He added that it's expensive to filter out violent racists from the police force. On the other hand, Butts added, "The downstream costs in human suffering — pain, death and medical costs are obvious."

Butts noted that the reasons for the disproportionate number of young people of color in juvenile justice facilities in New Jersey is complex. "But one thing we know is, it's an increment of bias at each stage of processing," he said.

Meanwhile, the Black teen's family has hired high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented the families of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Albery. Crump appeared with the young man's family in media appearances last week. The youth told ABC7 that the fight began when he intervened to stop the bullying of a friend, a seventh-grader. “I was just confused and mad about it,” he said. Neither teen was charged.

In an interview with CBS 2 in New York, the 15-year-old denied bullying. But he told mycentraljersey.com that he thought the police were wrong in how they handled the incident. “I thought it was wrong because they (cuffed) him and not me. I was confused because I offered for them (police) to arrest me because I knew it was wrong,” he told the news outlet.

Both teens have reportedly been banned from the mall for the next three years.