Is the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office Narcotics Task Force targeting the Latino Population?

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According to a letter sent out by the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey to the Office of Acting Attorney General, that could be the case. HCTV NJ was able to get a copy of the letter where these allegations are being presented.

June 30, 2014

LATINO LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE OF NEW JERSEY
CIVIL RIGHTS PROTECTION PROJECT
100 Jersey Ave. | B104 – Box 15 | New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901 Telephone: 732.249.0400 – Fax: 888.880.4405
www.llanj.org
President-Martin Perez, Esq. (732)397-8700 | martinperez@llanj.net Committee Chairperson-Richard Rivera (201)600-1769 | rrivera@llanj.net

John Jay Hoffman, Esq. Acting Attorney General Office of Attorney General 25 Market Street Trenton, N.J. 08625

Re: request for investigation Via email

Attorney General Hoffman,

Please accept this request for thorough review of the activities of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Task Force concerning, what we believe has been disproportionate targeting of Latinos for civil forfeiture actions. This targeting has consequently incentivized local police participation in activities funded by civil forfeitures, and is an accelerant of the improper targeting. Our review of public records has revealed a grossly disproportionate number of Latinos having been targeted for civil forfeiture in Bergen County.

As you know, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey is the state’s largest advocacy organization for Latinos. One of our committees is the Civil Rights Protection Project. The Project has received national accolades and recognition and we are proud of its collaboration with other statewide civil rights and advocacy organizations, as well as with such organizations in other states.

For more than seven years we have been tracking and monitoring law enforcement activities in and throughout Bergen County as part of our Civil Rights Protection Project. These enforcement activities include traffic stops, arrests, searches, seizures and use of force. They all fall within the purview of a county prosecutor’s general oversight of local agencies pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:17B-98 et. seq. Consistent with same, county prosecutors are your subordinates and this request for an inquiry should be treated as a formal request for an investigation by your office.

Citing public records we can demonstrate that significant racial/ethnic disparities exist in all of the above enforcement activities for various police agencies as illustrated in part below.

When our detection and monitoring system flagged a pattern of activity earlier this year, we submitted a request for public records to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office for currency seizure reports and distribution of forfeited property. We later met with Prosecutor Molinelli and made him aware that disparities exist and pledged to follow up with his office once we updated our databases to reflect 2013 police records. Included in our request was confidential informant entries we feel are of public interest (we did not seek names of CIs). The request was made consistent with Directives of your office.

We have met with the prosecutor in the past and to his credit he has maintained an open-door policy to discuss policing concerns we raise. He maintains that police officers within Bergen County do not engage in race-based or biased policing. However, his office does not track racial/ethnic data for enforcement activities nor is tracking required of local agencies despite ease of access to the data. We endeavor to track race/ethnicity in our databases, and because Hispanics are recorded typically as “white” in official records (i.e. arrest or use of force incidents) we resorted to the use of surnames to determine Hispanic ancestry of subjects. This is acceptable methodology using U.S. Census material that has withstood court scrutiny. In providing the facts below we understand that Census benchmarking is not appropriate for determining the potential population police may encounter and use the Census as a reference only.

Asset and currency seizure reports provided to our office indicate that the Bergen County Prosecutor has the highest value of assets for the entire state of New Jersey when compared to other counties. Seizure reports do not include race/ethnicity and are not required to record same by your office. Based on our review of Bergen County records for 2009 through 2013, Hispanics comprise 46.5% (average) of those claimants whose assets and/or cash were seized by the Bergen County Narcotics Task Force. 2013 reflected the highest representation with 64.2% of claimants being Hispanic. The last official Census indicates Hispanics were 16.8% of the county’s population. Similar patterns existed for numerous municipalities where Hispanics were the minority population but majority of seizures. Table 1 below illustrates the police jurisdiction, local population of Hispanics and corresponding seizures in 2013 including the disparity in population vs. seizures for Hispanics.

We are concerned that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has incentivized county task force participation by offering stipends for personnel and equipment to local police agencies using seized asset funding and by also sharing that funding through other distribution systems. We trust that your inquiry into our allegation, that a misguided incentivized forfeiture program is in place, should be impartial, thorough and timely. The results and findings should be shared publicly and inform the modification or development of policies, practices and procedures that will reform improper practices and monitor and track activities to deter recurrence of this type of activity.

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Over 63% of the municipal agencies listed in Table 1 also participated in this month’s heroin drug sweep coordinated by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office where more than 325 persons were arrested. It is no coincidence we previously flagged the agencies and their presence both on our list and their continued task force participation goes to the merits of our research on seizures in Bergen County. As in the past, should you need additional information or data to support our allegations outlined herein, feel free to contact our office. We look forward to the outcome of your review.

Very truly yours,

Richard Rivera