Drug Busts Plunge On Pike!

Drug Busts Plunge On Pike!
Posted by FoM on August 11, 1999 at 10:08:10 PT
By Michael Raphael, Staff Writer
Source: The Star Ledger
Once renowned for their tough drug-interdiction tactics, state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike have dramatically cut back on drug busts amid investigations into State Police misconduct. 
The number of drug charges filed against motorists on the Turnpike dropped 71 percent in the first half of this year from the same period in 1998, according to new statistics obtained from the Turnpike Authority. The figures show troopers on the Turnpike filed 243 charges of narcotics violations from January through June, compared with 847 during the first six months of 1998. Across the board, the number of charges filed by troopers on the Turnpike fell, although by a smaller margin than for drug violations, which account for nearly two out of every three alleged offenses. During the first half of 1999, the total charges were 613, down 51 percent from 1998. Last month, The Star-Ledger reported that all arrests by troopers across the state fell 17 percent in the first half of the year. John Hagerty, a State Police spokesman, said the agency knew about the Turnpike drop-off and was investigating. He declined to speculate on the cause or say what the agency was doing to address the issue. Neither the State Police -- under scrutiny since the finding that motorists have been stopped on the basis of race -- nor the Turnpike Authority would release drug-arrest data for the highway or for the state as a whole. And no information was available to determine how many of those arrested on drug charges were minority members. A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said the figures, requested by The Star-Ledger four weeks ago, were not readily available. Arrest totals may differ from the number of charges filed because defendants sometimes are charged with more than one crime -- one charge for cocaine possession and a second for having a drug pipe, for example. Still, the figures were in clear contrast to drug-interdiction statistics from a decade ago. In 1989, troopers on the Turnpike made 5,129 drug arrests. The Attorney General's Office also is reviewing the numbers, said a spokesman, Roger Shatzkin. "We've been in a period of analysis where we're evaluating our drug policy. We will be reissuing a statewide drug strategy that will prioritize and target narcotic enforcement to get the greatest impact," Shatzkin said. "Troopers are out there doing their jobs. The numbers indicate that. In those incidents where they have an appropriate reason to make a narcotics arrest, we expect them to do it, and they'll be backed 100 percent." The drop-off coincides with a period of intense scrutiny of the way state troopers conduct drug stops and searches on the Turnpike. Federal authorities have been investigating troopers' conduct for at least three years, and state officials launched their own probe in February after the publication of State Police records showing that 75 percent of arrests on the Turnpike were of minorities. In April the Attorney General's Office released the first of two reports confirming the existence of racial profiling. In that month, a grand jury also indicted two troopers for allegedly falsifying daily activity logs in an apparent attempt to hide the fact they were targeting minority drivers for stops on the Turnpike. Currently the state is negotiating with the U.S. Department of Justice on a consent decree that would end federal litigation and spell out civil-rights-based reforms for the State Police. Edward Lennon, the first vice president of the State Troopers Fraternal Organization, said the investigations have had a powerful effect on the way the troopers do their jobs. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out," Lennon said. "There's guys out there today just doing patrol, writing summonses and not looking for any criminal activity. It's very obvious they are gun-shy with the current situation with two troopers under indictment." Lennon said troopers felt betrayed by decision makers in Trenton who had given them the task of eradicating drug trafficking on the Turnpike in the 1980s, only to turn around and prosecute them in the 1990s. "We were given direction: zero tolerance, go get 'em. Nobody's saying that now. Everybody's worried about where they will stand if a complaint comes in on racial profiling," he said. "Troopers are skeptical about where they stand with support from above." One veteran trooper echoed that sentiment. "If the Attorney General's Office isn't going to back you or the Governor isn't going to back you, why should they take the chance?" asked the trooper. "They aren't extending themselves because they feel the outfit (the Division of State Police) isn't going to back them." The Rev. Reginald Jackson, an influential critic of racial profiling within the State Police, said he wanted to see specific drug-arrest figures and the amount of drugs seized before reaching any conclusions about the reason for the fall-off. Still, he said, the numbers raised serious questions that the state needed to answer. "In terms of why, there's no doubt the charge of racial profiling played a major role," he said. "But it might also mean that what went on in previous years was unjustified." Assemblyman Leroy Jones Jr. (D-Essex), a member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which has been critical of the State Police, said the Whitman administration must take responsibility for the drop its failure to quickly find a new superintendent. Col. Carl Williams was fired in February after comments that linked certain minority groups to drug crimes. "What it means is that morale is, obviously, at its lowest point and the agency is obviously in dire straits for leadership," Jones said. "The horrific result is that we have a tendency to see more criminal activity going unaddressed. The public has been dealt a disservice as a result of this issue of leadership and lack of morale." Peter McDonough, Gov. Christie Whitman's spokesman, would not comment on the drug-charge figures but did say, "Assemblyman Jones' analysis of these numbers is absurd because he has no background or basis on which to make these claims." One out-of-state drug expert said that, whatever the reason for the decline, the number of drug traffickers using the Turnpike would rise quickly as word spread of the interdiction drop-off. "The drug couriers have a good idea where the interdiction is strongest. And they will try to avoid those highways. If they realize that troopers are not going to be making a lot of stops, they're certainly going to open those roads up to couriers," said Don Kidd, a former FBI agent who was in charge of drug interdiction in Arkansas. "They pick up on it pretty quick. They know what's going on." Staff writers Ron Marsico and P.L. Wyckoff contributed to this report. Pubdate: August 11, 1999 1999 The Star-Ledger. Used with permission. 
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