Shaquille O’Neal wants to talk about traffic stops. So does a former New York Giants linebacker, as well as a bishop from Newark, New Jersey, police officers and a detective from local police departments, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, and the executive director of a local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If you’re stopped by the police, things like staying calm and following the officer’s instructions will make it a safe stop,” O’Neal, the former basketball star, says to a camera in a new public service announcement, sparsely filmed with the New Jersey state flag and the American flag set off to one side.
“Know your rights, know the law,” concludes O’Neal, who was born in Newark and has previously declared he wants to run for sheriff in Henry County, Georgia.
This unusual alliance of celebrities, police officers and civil rights groups was prompted by a new campaign by the state attorney general, Christopher S. Porrino, that tells people how to conduct themselves during traffic stops as a means of defusing confrontations that have sometimes turned violent.
The $1 million public service campaign, which is called Safe Stop and includes announcements broadcast on television and shown in movie theaters and other public places, describes the legal requirements of drivers during a traffic stop, like keeping their hands on the steering wheel until an officer approaches and not getting out of a car unless instructed to do so.
While campaigns to educate citizens about their rights during police stops have become common across the country, the effort in New Jersey has drawn criticism from some civil rights advocates, who maintain it conveys a subtle message that drivers and passengers bear responsibility for traffic stops that go awry.
Porrino, a political independent who was nominated to serve as attorney general by Gov. Chris Christie in 2016, acknowledged that the campaign, which started this month, could prove controversial. While he said he did not believe the announcements placed too much of an onus on civilians, he welcomed the criticism as a way of keeping the dialogue going on the complicated relations between the police and the public.
“We decided to take it on a bit, and maybe we’ll take some heat from certain players, who think that we’re blaming the victim, but this for me is practical, and less ideological,” Porrino said in an interview. “So I’m perfectly happy for people to, and I think they should, and I’d encourage them to, continue the debate about police use of force.”
As shootings of unarmed black men by the police have set off a national discussion on race relations and the way officers treat civilians, police departments across the country have struggled with how to make changes. Some departments, including in New Jersey, have adopted body cameras, required implicit-bias and de-escalation training for officers and held many meetings with local leaders.
In developing the Safe Stop campaign, Porrino said much of the reform effort in New Jersey had focused on law enforcement, but little had been done to educate the public.
“I have the power to direct law enforcement,” Porrino said. “I don’t have the power with respect to civilians, but I said to the team, ‘Shouldn’t we be thinking about ways to provide information that helps the other participants in every one of these encounters?’” A website that is part of the campaign allows people to file complaints against the police.
But some critics say providing people information about the rules they are expected to follow does not always ensure a safe encounter. DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist and one of the most recognized voices in the Black Lives Matter movement, pointed to the killing of Philando Castile, a black motorist in Minnesota who was fatally shot by a police officer while he was in his car during a traffic stop. Castile was shot moments after he told the officer that he possessed a firearm.
“These ads perpetuate the false narrative that when citizens are harmed in police-citizen interactions that the responsibility to mitigate harm rests with the citizen,” Mckesson said. “Philando Castile, for instance, did everything right and was still killed.”
The ads also stop short of fully explaining the rights of a citizen in a traffic stop, according to Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit that studies how technology affects social issues.
“One thing that I think is missing from this is how somebody who does get stopped, where the officers are wearing body-worn cameras, how that person is able to get body-worn camera video,” Yu said.
New Jersey has a checkered history regarding racial bias among its law enforcement officers. In 1999, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was forced to admit that state troopers had been racially profiling black and Latino drivers. A federal monitor was appointed to oversee the State Police force as it sought to root out racial discrimination. The monitor was in place for more than a decade.
That history made some participants in Safe Stop, particularly the ACLU, initially hesitant to join the effort. And though the ACLU is a partner and has produced its own video, Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU in New Jersey, said the group was monitoring to ensure that the attorney general’s office shows “a genuine interest towards transparency, accountability and oversight regarding the police.”
Sinha said “we believe that law enforcement bears ultimate responsibility, and we believe in police accountability.” But, he added, “it seems like the attorney general’s office is genuinely thinking about those things constructively, so all of those things together helped us feel a little more comfortable with partnering.”
In Camden, a city that was once plagued by violence, the police have been holding extensive discussions with residents in an effort to improve relations and foster better communication. Police Chief John S. Thomson held a town hall meeting after officers started wearing body cameras, and smaller meetings are held regularly.
It is a strategy that has helped drive down crime in a city that not long ago was among the most dangerous in the country.
State officials have also made changes in law enforcement across New Jersey, including helping finance body cameras and providing training for officers.
To some who have worked at cultivating better bonds between the police and the communities they patrol, the Safe Stop campaign is a positive step as part of broader law enforcement reforms.
“I don’t view this as the magic wand that’s going to fix everything, but as part of a comprehensive strategy, it’s part of what makes sense,” said Jim Johnson, a former Democratic candidate for governor who has focused extensively on police-community relations.
“You have to ask yourself, what’s the alternative?” he added. “Is the alternative not to provide people with info they can use? Not to provide people information that could decrease the likelihood of someone getting hurt in a police-community interaction? And I think the answer to that is no.”