As the New Jersey State Police continues to shed its past reputation as an insular force that discriminated against minority troopers and motorists, there was more good news last week.
The new class of 132 recruits is the most racially diverse in the state's history. The group that began training this week includes 23 black recruits, 35 Hispanics, eight Asians and two Native Americans. Minorities make up more than half of the class, with black recruits representing about 17 percent.
That's a big improvement over the last class, which graduated only two black troopers. It's also an improvement over the days when a federal monitor oversaw the operations of a troubled force and when the state had to pay out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits from minority drivers.
After a 1998 incident in which troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike shot three unarmed minority men whose van was stopped while they were on their way to a basketball game in North Carolina, the federal Justice Department sued the state, charging that a system of racial profiling was encouraged within the force. The suit resulted in a consent decree in which a federal monitor oversaw reforms within the force for 10 years.
Claims of racial discrimination also led to a settlement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2000, in which the state agreed to increase minority recruitment. But since then, the percentage of black troopers has actually decreased.
So Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa's description of the makeup of the current class, as he testified before the Senate Budget Committee Monday, was encouraging. So was his assurance that the increased numbers resulted from outreach programs, not from the lowering of any standards.
In the bad old days, troopers who refused to go along with racial profiling were pressured and punished. Women and minority members of the force long complained of harassment by groups of rogue troopers. An atmosphere like that is the fault of leadership, of course, but it is also something that must be changed from within. Increasing the number of minority troopers patrolling the state will help ensure that such a culture cannot take hold again, and that law enforcement officers better understand the residents of the state they are serving.
The current class will undergo 24 weeks of training at the New Jersey State Police Academy in Sea Girt. Those who pass will become troopers in October. They will help shore up the 3,000-member force, which has seen a wave of retirements thin its ranks.
The only disappointing thing about the new class of recruits is that there are so few women in it, only six. Chiesa acknowledged that more must be done to recruit women to the force, just as efforts to recruit minorities must continue so that the makeup of the State Police more closely represents the population of the state.
Those efforts are important. A more diverse State Police force is a better force, for everyone.