State and county prosecutors are investigating the police chief of an affluent, overwhelmingly white northern New Jersey town after the ACLU publicized a 2014 email attributed to him, in which he encourages officers to racially profile people. Wyckoff police Chief Benjamin Fox has temporarily stepped down pending the outcome of a Bergen County and state Attorney General's Office investigation. The ACLU of New Jersey says someone passed the email on to them last week, and they publicized it on Tuesday.
I think that most police officers are finding the national rhetoric about police abuse and racial profiling quite upsetting. Profiling, racial or otherwise, has it's place in law enforcement when used correctly and applied fairly. Unfortunately we have never heard that from our President, top political leaders or our US Attorney General. Don't ask the police to ignore what we know. Black gang members from Teaneck commit burglaries in Wyckoff. That's why we check out suspicious black people in white neighborhoods. White kids buy heroin in black NYC neighborhoods. That's why the NYPD stops those white kids. The police know they are there to buy drugs. It's insane to think that the police should just "dumb down" just to be politically correct. The public wants us to keep them safe and I'm confident that they want us to use our skills and knowledge to attain that goal.
My major concern is that all of this misguided complaining about police officers will cause an officer to react slower to something you might perceive as a threat. That delay could be deadly.
Continue to do your job relying on your training, instincts and knowledge:
A common thread in the recent national incidents are persons who resist the police. That resistance then creates your counter reaction. We don't run from fights.
This department has a history of being respected by the public. Each of you contribute to that daily. Continue to be fair with people and treat them with respect. If someone resists your authorized demands, use your counter reaction as the law allows and you have my 100% support should others complain. If you have done your job correctly, they don't want to get me on the other end of the phone.
Above all, do what you have to do and that which the law allows you to do to remain safe.
Notably, while Fox makes nods to following the law in "fighting" recalcitrant suspects, the "suspicious" in front of "black people" is the only indication that he supports or understands the concept of probable cause, and given the context, it's an open question whether "suspicious" is being used to modify "black people" or whether the two are one and the same in his mind.
The ACLU says that the email shows violations of state and federal prohibitions against racial profiling in policing, as well as a 2005 state attorney general policy further spelling out what you can't do when it comes to racially motivated policing. The group is demanding that, if the email is determined to be legit, Fox be fired, his officers retrained, and the department audited for biased policing and use of force.
"When you look at everything we know about the kind of policing that fosters trust between officers and communities, this email shows Wyckoff heading in the opposite direction," ACLU staff Attorney Alexander Shalom said in a statement. “Encouraging police officers to act with racial bias is unacceptable. Sowing mistrust at this level damages civil rights, and it threatens public safety by diminishing the faith people have in the police."
Wyckoff is a town of 17,000 located 50 minutes west of New York. It is 93.5 percent white, and 0.6 percent African American (the police department's leadership seems pretty white too), with a median income of $141,964. The town's Township Committee held an emergency meeting on Tuesday night to talk about the email. Fox attended and asked to go on administrative leave pending the investigation. NorthJersey.com reported that he said the time off would allow him to "explain the contents of his email and demonstrate that neither he nor our police department has ever condoned or engaged in profiling."
A joint statement by local and state prosecutors made it sound like the email will be tough to explain away.
"On its face, the email appears to be a clear violation of the Attorney General’s policy strictly prohibiting racial profiling by police officers," acting Attorney General Robert Lougy and acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal said.
Nevertheless, NorthJersey.com found a policing expert willing to defend Fox's alleged conduct:
Tom O’Reilly, the director the Police Institute at Rutgers University, said this can be a “fine line” to walk for officers on the street.
“We expect the officers to use their training and experience to identify potential threats to public safety. If those threats are based on his experience — and the behavior of the subject — than it’s not racial profiling,” O’Reilly said. “[But] if the only reason he stops an individual is because of what their ethnicity is or how they’re dressed, then that individual perhaps may have crossed the line.”
O’Reilly, who was unfamiliar with the case, said Fox’s use of the word “suspicious,” as well as the email’s asking that officers rely on their training, makes it “reasonably balanced.” But could Fox have chosen better examples?
“Perhaps so, in today’s context,” said O’Reilly.
The ACLU is now seeking Wyckoff police records on arrests, use of force, stop and frisk, training materials, and emails with the word "profiling." It is also reiterating its demand that the state attorney general require New Jersey police departments to collect and publish data on summonses, force, and other aspects of law enforcement, including racial information.
A Wyckoff police spokeswoman told Gothamist she did not know whether Fox's leave is paid or unpaid. He reportedly makes $174,000 a year.