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Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Police Training on How to Violate Constitutional Rights

by Anthony W. Accurso

Until recently, police departments in New Jersey were covering expenses for their officers to attend training sessions conducted by Street Cop Training (“SCT”), an organization that encourages “a hypervigilant warrior mentality” and trains officers to consider an arbitrary and contradictory list of behaviors as reasons to detain civilians.

SCT was founded in 2012 by Dennis Benigno. He was a Woodbridge, New Jersey, police officer until 2015. At an Atlantic City conference in October 2021, SCT provided training to current officers by current and former officers. Over the six-day conference, SCT trained nearly 1,000 officers, according to a report by Kevin Walsh, New Jersey’s acting Comptroller. Their employers paid the expenses—$499 for training but also travel, lodging, and time off—meaning taxpayers were indirectly subsidizing SCT’s operations.

When officers have a reasonable, articulable basis to believe a person has, is, or about to, commit a crime, police can detain that person, usually driving a vehicle, to conduct a brief investigation.

SCT teaches officers that “every interaction with a civilian” is “a potential deadly threat.” Officers are warned that any person, once detained, could “take your fucking life in a second,” so they should “treat every motor vehicle stop as if you are going to die and you might just live.”

Policing certainly can be dangerous, but many more civilians are killed each year by police than police are killed by civilians, totaling around 100 per month, according to ProPublica. Research, and nonfiction books like Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking To Strangers, have linked this aggressively suspicious posturing by police as a driving factor in police murders of civilians. Yet, speakers at the SCT trainings “made comments glorifying violence in the application of military techniques to policing,” according to Walsh. Reinforcing this mentality, SCT coaches encourage trainees to view seemingly random and contradictory behaviors by motorists as suspicious.

Wearing a hat “low to cover [your] face” is suspicious but so is removing a hat when stopped by police, which results in a situation where the person can do nothing to dispel suspicion. Other “reasonable suspicion factors” that made SCT’s list include: “texting, smoking, lip licking, yawning, stretching, talking to a passenger while keeping your eyes on the road, signaling a turn early or late, maintaining ‘awkward closeness’ or ‘awkward distance’ during a stop, standing parallel or perpendicular to the car, saying you are heading to work or heading home, questioning the reason for the stop, and refusing permission for a search.”

While many of these factors are dubious at best, the last one is particularly troubling because it teaches officers that asserting one’s constitutional rights is “suspicious.” During trainings, Benigno will often show “a montage of people refusing consent in an attempt to illustrate that a motorist’s refusal to consent is a suspicious factor that justifies prolonging and investigative detention,” while offering the justification that innocent motorists will consent to a search because they have nothing to hide (or, of course, they may simply value their privacy and are unwilling to submit to an arbitrary demand to rummage through their personal belongings).

Walsh notes that in New Jersey, “it has been long settled that police must have reasonable suspicion of criminality before they ask for consent to search a motor vehicle,” and many courts have ruled that “refusal to consent to a search cannot itself form the basis for reasonable suspicion.”

Brad Gilmore was one SCT trainer at the October 2021 conference, and he was also a narcotics detective with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. And, despite the fact the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), held that even the briefest of extensions of a traffic stop beyond the original mission for the stop—typically, to address the traffic infraction—are unconstitutional (the so-called “Rodriguez moment”), Gilmore “endorsed the practice of pretending to conduct a computer lookup so an officer can illegally but surreptitiously continue and investigation during a motor vehicle stop that should have already concluded.” Gilmore told trainees to be “finger-fucking your computer” or “playing Tetris,” which gives a narcotics officer time to arrive with a drug dog while the officer pretends to be working on the citation.

The New Jersey State Police has since told its employees to stop attending these trainings, and Gilmore’s comments encouraging flouting the law have already caused collateral consequences. In December 2023, New Jersey prosecutors dropped all drug charges against Francisco A. Paulino-Edua, who was arrested by Gilmore in 2017.

“The officer’s believability and credibility were so suspect that the government could not back up a prosecution based on his behavior,” said Brian Neary, Paulino-Edua’s attorney, to The New York Times.

Comptroller Walsh argues that “[t]his kind of training comes at too high a price for New Jersey residents, because the cost of attendance for training like this is small in comparison to the potential liability for lawsuits involving excessive force, unlawful searches and seizures, and harassment and discrimination.”

After the release of Walsh’s report, SCT was promptly banned from conducting training in nine states and filed for bankruptcy in February 2024. Although this particular actor is no longer training police officers, there’s little doubt that the tactics and mindset it taught are being spread by others within the law enforcement community.

 

Sources: reason.com, msn.com

 

 

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