In a free democracy, we expect those who are supposed to uphold the law to do so with fairness, carrying out their duties without bigotry or prejudice. When law enforcement falls short of that standard, it causes us to lose trust, and the wounds created become difficult to heal.
A New Jersey police chief's behavior, over the course of several years, has done just that. Former Bordentown Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. is being charged with federal hate crimes for his verbal abuses against black citizens while working in law enforcement.
The Washington Post reports that there are numerous instances of Nucera Jr.’s racist performance as chief. He frequently sought to intimidate black individuals, including students, bringing canine units to high school basketball games and placing them at the entranceways.
Nucera Jr. also acted out more violently toward black individuals who were in his custody. An 18-year-old man and his teenage girlfriend were in a hotel pool when the hotel called police, alleging they had not paid for their room. Both teens resisted arrest and were pepper-sprayed.
Afterward, Nucera Jr. slammed the 18-year-old’s head into a metal door. He had no reason to do so, and cannot make any claim of self-defense: the teen was not fighting, kicking, or otherwise impeding arrest at that point, but was merely yelling.
There are also reports that Nucera Jr. spoke quite plainly about his racist attitudes while at the station. Upon discovery that his vehicle’s tires were slashed two years ago, Nucera Jr. vented to another officer about it. “I wish that n***** would come back from Trenton and give me a reason to put my hands on him,” he said.
His threats then took an even darker turn.
These n*****s are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it.
Nucera Jr. retired from the force in February when he found out he was the subject of an investigation. He was formally charged by acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey William Fitzpatrick this week, who said Nucera’s tenure “is one of the most disturbing and disgusting events I've seen in over 20 years in law enforcement.”
It’s indeed disturbing that Nucera Jr. behaved the way he did in his capacity as chief of police. His behavior created doubts in the minds of the township he policed. That the feds are getting involved and charging him with hate crimes is a good thing.
But what about more subtle abuses that occur across the country? Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated that he wouldn’t be cracking down on systemic racism across the country the way his predecessors did. “Filing a lawsuit against a police department has ramifications,” he said during his confirmation hearings, “and it can impact morale of the officers.”
While the morale of police departments is important, so too is confidence in them. If a community witnesses systemic racism, and mechanisms in place that are designed to provide oversight choose instead to ignore it, it can impact that community in a hugely negative way — much more so than a dejected police force might.
Hopefully the Department of Justice continues to prosecute cases like Nucera Jr.’s, where blatant cases of racism are apparent. But Sessions and other officials in the Trump administration need to open their eyes to other abuses. Most police officers are respectable officials, but there exists a need to keep a watchful eye on departments that fail their communities and the people who live in them.