A recent college graduate is the latest driver to allege that the police force in a small New Jersey town is racially profiling motorists, the I-Team has learned.
Tevin Bell, 24, said that he's been stopped nearly two dozen times by police commuting through Bloomfield on his way to class from neighboring Newark over the last four years. Bell -- who said he was put in handcuffs during one of the stops -- is now fighting in court to get records of all traffic stops by the town's police department.
"They’re just stopping minorities," Bell said. "They’re stopping mostly blacks, because me and my friends, we’re stopped constantly."
Bell said in his latest encounter with Bloomfield police he and three friends were pulled over for a burned out headlight. The officers claimed they smelled marijuana, and searched the men, along with the car.
Bell was then accused of resisting arrest and was put in handcuffs. He was later given a summons for marijuana possession after officers claimed they found a bag of pot inside the patrol car where Bell had been placed.
He denied the allegations.
Bell’s attorney issued a subpoena to the police director and told the I-Team he wants records of all recent traffic stops.
"I am requesting records regarding race, time, date, and location," said Josh Denbeaux, who is representing Bell pro bono. "We think they stopped Tevin and the others because there were four young black men in the car."
Bell's case comes weeks after a Seton Hall University School of Law study found that more than 80 percent of those who appeared for court in the predominantly white town were black or Hispanic. The largest proportion of those who appeared in court were from neighboring towns Newark and East Orange.
The director of the school's Center for Policy and Research, Mark Denbeaux, said after the study was released that the town runs a "border patrol that targets people of color."
The Bloomfield Police Department released a statement calling the Seton Hall study deeply flawed and misleading, adding that its manpower is devoted to areas where there is the highest crime.
"Greater deployment of officers to the area means a greater number of summonses issued there," the statement said.
Still, at least one former cop says he thinks that racial profiling exists in the town. Richard Rivera, a former Hudson County police officer who is now a consultant in police practices, said he obtained dozens of police dashcam videos from four nights in January through an open records request.
"The police videos overwhelmingly show that minorities are getting searched in comparison to other demographics,” Rivera said. "The Bloomfield Police Department engages in pre-textual stops."
The police department’s statement said Bloomfield recorded the lowest number of crimes last year in more than two decades.
But Rivera said that low crime numbers shouldn't come at the expense of civil liberties.
"Crime shouldn’t be lowered by violating people’s rights," he said.
A Municipal Court Judge will hold a hearing on Bell's subpoena on May 17. The city's legal counsel said it plans to fight the motion.