Frisking Photo Puts Whitman on Defensive

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
July 10, 2000 12:00 am

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TRENTON, NJ — After enduring two years of criticism for the racial profiling practices of her state troopers, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman has a new public relations problem, The New York Times reported: a photo of the governor herself, grinning as she frisks a black man.

According to the Times, the photograph was taken by a state trooper during a trip Mrs. Whitman made with officers as they patrolled in Camden, N.J. one night in 1996. The picture was obtained by The Associated Press and published in several New Jersey newspapers over the weekend.

It shows the governor patting down a man whose arms are splayed against a wall.

The symbolism of the photo and the facts of the frisking — the man was stopped for “suspicious activity” but not arrested or found to be violating the law — have drawn criticism from civil rights leaders who have long questioned Mrs. Whitman’s sensitivity to inner-city residents.

Whitman told the AP that she regretted taking part in the frisk, and was simply trying to learn firsthand about the dangers that officers encounter in Camden, the state’s most impoverished and crime-ridden city. Mrs. Whitman said she hoped that the photo would not overshadow the fact that in 1999 she became the first state official to acknowledge that state troopers were singling out minority drivers for traffic stops, and went on to overhaul the force to discourage discriminatory practices.

The timing of the photo’s release — three weeks before the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River from Camden — could hardly be worse for the governor. Some of her supporters still hold out hopes that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas might choose her as a running mate, but Mrs. Whitman’s close advisers say she is trying to position herself for a cabinet position or ambassador’s post.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey are scheduled to meet this week to plan protests around the state, and they said they would also hold a demonstration after the opening ceremonies of the convention.

Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said the search was illegal because troopers had apparently searched the man — and found no contraband — before turning him over to the governor. Under New Jersey law, it is illegal for officers to perform a search unless they believe a suspect is armed or has committed a crime, said Ms. Jacobs.

“It’s disheartening that the war on drugs can lead some elected officials to trample on people’s rights, to use people as props and to carry out searches as photo opportunities,” she said.

State Senator Wayne Bryant, a Democrat from Camden, said the photo would set back attempts to heal the state’s racial divisions. “This would never have happened in white suburbia,” said Mr. Bryant, who is black. “In a state with a profiling problem, it sends a signal that you can do things to young African-Americans — the kind of things that you wouldn’t think of doing to other people. They reduced this individual to something less than a human being. It was like a rodeo, and they got caught up in the roundup.”

In April 1998, two troopers shot three unarmed minority men on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the complaints of racial discrimination by troopers grew to dominate the state’s political agenda. In a May 1996 interview with The Courier-Post, Mrs. Whitman described her travels through Camden with the troopers and said the visit had helped her better understand the challenges facing inner-city parents. She did not mention taking part in a frisk.

The governor also recounted the tale of one man who was searched, but was released after officers found he had $100 in his pocket. She told the paper that the man had told her, “Not everyone you find with a lot of cash on them in Camden is a criminal, governor.”

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