A Black Woman Said She Was Afraid of The Police. A Nearly All-White Disciplinary Panel Said We Don’t Believe You.

Originally published in The Intercept on April 5, 2019.
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A STATE ETHICS panel in New Jersey, which included a former police officer indicted for killing an unarmed black man, has recommended a six-month suspension for a school board member whose own tense 2018 encounter with a cop went viral. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad told the panel that she reacted irrationally to the officer because she was upset and afraid, but the panel concluded, in its official condemnation, that Lawson-Muhammad was lying, and that her use of an “epithet” could give her local community reason to believe she was, in fact, the real racist.

In late April 2018, Lawson-Muhammad was driving her daughter to school in South Orange, New Jersey, when she got pulled over for going 12 miles-per-hour over the speed limit. She was already having a bad morning, running late to get her daughter to school, and knowing she also had to circle back home to get her other daughter to her school in time to take the state’s standardized test. When the police officer approached her car, she quickly introduced herself, identified herself as a school board member and community member of South Orange, and apologized for potentially speeding.

When the police officer, Shaun Horstasked to see Lawson-Muhammad’s registration, she started crying and voiced her fears about getting her other daughter to school in time for her test. “And I’m scared of cops because you guys hurt black people,” she added, in tears. The cop then asked her if she wanted him to call her an ambulance — something Lawson-Muhammad perceived as mocking her anxiety. “That’s an insult,” she replied sharply. “OK, I’m just wondering,” he said. “You look like you might be having a panic attack.” When he then asked for her driver’s license, registration and insurance, she reiterated his ambulance question was “a fucking insult.”

Lawson-Muhammad asked the police officer if he could call her daughter’s middle school to let them know she’d be late for the state exam, a request he promptly declined. Upon learning he was a South Orange police officer, she said, “OK, I’ll call Sheena right now” referring to Sheena Collum, the South Orange Village President. She could not find her driver’s license, her car insurance was out of date, and she couldn’t find her updated one. “I’m freaked out right now,” she told the officer.

The anxiety, she later explained to the commission and in an interview with The Intercept, went beyond fear of a ticket or being late to school. Her Facebook feed had long been saturated with stories of police shootings of black people, and her past encounters with police left her feeling anxious, often not because the police had done anything in particular. She noticed a skull tattoo on the officer’s arm, which she said heightened her anxiety, fueling what she called the spiraling “irrational” response.

The cop returned to his vehicle and wrote her two court summonses, for speeding and not having an up-to-date insurance card. (During that time she found her license and waved it out the window so he knew not to sanction her for that.) When he returned to her car, Lawson-Muhammad had her husband on the phone, who said he could send the insurance card over immediately, but Horst said it was too late as the summons was already written. Lawson-Muhammad grew upset and confused. “I don’t want to go to court! I have insurance! He can text you a picture of it right now!” Then Lawson-Muhammad said again she would call Sheena Collum, “and your skinhead cop chief” — referring to the South Orange Police Chief, Kyle Kroll.

Things spiraled from there. Dash-cam video footage of the encounter leaked shortly after, including to the South Orange Board of Trustees, an elected body of six. Nobody had subpoenaed the footage, and nobody seemed to know about it outside the police force, the type of body which normally fights hard against efforts to pry loose dash-cam videos.

“There’s clearly something political happening when police officers are trying to release videos they think might portray political figures to look bad,” said Khadijah Costley White, founder of SOMA Justice, a local racial justice group. “And I say this as an activist. I don’t want to feel like I need to worry about a police officer pulling me over and recording me in a bad moment and then releasing that video.”

The trustees voted unanimously to send the video and a letter of concern to the school board president, Elizabeth Baker. Another person who obtained the video footage, in what he describes as an “unmarked package” from an anonymous source, was Walter Fields, a local education advocate and a longtime critic of the school board of which Lawson-Muhammad is a member. Fields wrote the board president on May 16 and called for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation. He also said the board president should resign too if she had prior knowledge of the video. Fields then sent the footage to Village Green, a local community newspaper.

Another local news outlet, TAPinto, published a report about the video that day, and the footage quickly went viral across the country, with Fox News affiliates clamoring to cover the story. Lawson-Muhammad issued a public apology on May 17 for what she called her “irrational” behavior, and announced she had also apologized to Officer Kroll in person. Pastor Terry Richardson, the head minister at First Baptist Church in South Orange who facilitated the meeting between Kroll and Lawson-Muhammad, told The Intercept that Kroll said Lawson-Muhammad “was very sincere” and “expressed genuine heartfelt regret” and that was the reason Kroll felt committed to moving forward. (Lawson-Muhammad had also tried to meet with Kroll prior to the video going public, but the meeting did not happen until the story had already made news.)

But the episode divided the racially diverse suburbs of South Orange and Maplewood. Many called Lawson-Muhammad’s language shocking and racist, while others defended her and said the public’s reaction revealed their callousness toward the legitimate fears black people have when dealing with police. Still others said the community could use this as an opportunity for mutual healing and relationship-building.

Walter Fields, though, was not finished. He soon filed a formal complaint against Lawson-Muhammad with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission, alleging she had tried to use her position on the school board to evade legal accountability. He filed a separate ethics complaint against the school board president for withholding information about the video. Many in the community saw these efforts as politically motivated, as Fields was simultaneously suing the school district and fighting with the school board over other unrelated issues.

Last week, the School Ethics Commission, a body comprised of no African-American members and no women, issued a recommendation to suspend Lawson-Muhammad from the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education for six months. The commission — whose members, including a former DEA officer who was indicted for killing a black man, were all appointed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie — concluded they found Lawson-Muhammad’s explanations for her behavior neither “credible or convincing.”

WHEN STEPHANIE LAWSON-MUHAMMAD and her husband moved into South Orange in 2011, they were actually bucking some broader demographic trends. South Orange and Maplewood (which share one school district) were historically known for their racial integration, but since 2010 the two suburbs have been growing whiter and wealthier. Black student enrollment in the local public schools fell 18 percent between 1998 and 2014.

Lawson-Muhammad, a trained electrical engineer who works in the wireless industry, and her husband Khalil Muhammad, a Harvard scholar of race and history and the great-grandson of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, are no strangers to racial issues. “My whole career has been in technology,” she said. “I’m typically the only black person in the room, the only woman in the room.”

In 2013, Lawson-Muhammad decided to run for school board, in the district where three of her children were enrolled and because of longstanding issues around equity and race in the public school system. The following year, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education announced it was entering into an agreement with the South Orange-Maplewood School District to ensure that black students were afforded equal opportunities to enroll in advanced courses, after investigating and finding that they were significantly underrepresented in those classes.

Walter Fields, a former leader in New Jersey’s NAACP chapter, founded the Black Parents Workshop in 2015 to advocate for black children. Though she didn’t know him well, Lawson-Muhammad said she appreciated his presence and perspective at school board meetings. She wasn’t involved in his group but thought it had promise. Over time though, she said, it eventually became clear “he was never looking to partner with members on the school board who were already fighting for equity.”

Paul Williams, a black parent in the district, told The Intercept that he doesn’t know any black parents in South Orange or Maplewood who are active in the group, and that “it seems like one or two self-appointed individuals” who run the whole thing. Fields told The Intercept that the Black Parents Workshop is not a membership-based organization and that its board makes decisions.

Near the end of 2017, the South Orange-Maplewood school board reportedwhat steps the district had taken since entering into an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights and outlined some additional goals for the years ahead. But three months later, the Black Parents Workshop filed a new federal lawsuit against the district, alleging racial discrimination in course offerings — the same thing the school board said it was tackling. “We had literally just made public statements and launched work that already was addressing many of the same things he outlined in the lawsuit,” said Lawson-Muhammad.

Fields told The Intercept that the group’s legal counsel is currently in discussions with the district about a possible settlement.

A few months after the Black Parents Workshop filed its legal challenge against the South Orange-Maplewood school district, a coalition of civil rights advocates across New Jersey filed a new integration lawsuit, calling on the state to desegregate New Jersey public schools. The UCLA Civil Rights Project ranks New Jersey as the sixth most segregated state in the U.S. for black students, and seventh for Latinos. It’s a rare suit—only the fifth, in four states, to mount a school segregation challenge as a violation of a state constitution. Brown v. Board of Education and almost all other well-known segregation lawsuits have been filed in federal court. But given New Jersey’s particular constitution and its history of strong pro-integration court decisions, legal observers say the plaintiffs have an unusually strong chance for success.

Lawson-Muhammad would soon emerge as a prominent voice championing the goals of the statewide lawsuit, which went public just weeks after the now notorious traffic stop.

SHORTLY AFTER THE video went public and viral, Fields testified at a school board meeting and called on Lawson-Muhammad to resign, alleging she had tried to use her position as a school board member to get out of the speeding ticket. Many others in the community made no secret of their disdain for her, and claimed she was the real racist.

“I had to will myself to go to the grocery store,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “I didn’t know if someone was going to come up and spit on me.”

Some local groups jumped to her defense. Founding members of Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity, or PARES, wrote a letter to “vehemently condemn the attack and salacious media circus” against Lawson-Muhammad and said the attacks appear politically motivated. “We fear that attacking Ms. Lawson-Muhammad is a blatant ploy to sow dissent and encourage discord among the BOE, just as it embarks on its plan to desegregate our school district.”

Another group, SOMA Justice, wrote a letter urging the school board and village president to not accept or request Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation, and noted they “strenuously disagree” with the characterizations of her behavior made by Walter Fields.

White, the SOMA Justice founder, told The Intercept that her group wanted to make clear that a black woman’s fear against the police is legitimate, justified and should be taken seriously. “From my perspective trying to make clear she is a good resident and good citizen is actually a very legitimate response to interacting with the police when you never know if you can be seriously hurt or injured or maimed and killed,” White said. “That this is something that is always on the presence of black people’s minds when they interact with the police is something I think most of my white neighbors don’t think about.”

In late 2018, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com reported that a black person in South Orange was nearly 10 times more likely to face use-of-force by the police than a white person. And in Maplewood, the journalists found, police use-of-force was more than three times the state average. The findings came from a 16-month investigation that involved analyzing records from every local police department in New Jersey over the last five years.

In response to claims from community members that Fields’s complaint was politically motivated, he denied that his ethics complaint had anything to do with Lawson-Muhammad’s work on the school board. In September, the School Ethics Commission director said they found no evidence that Fields had filed his complaint “in bad faith solely for the purpose of harassment, delay, or malicious injury.”

However, in August, as advocates for the statewide integration lawsuit were preparing to meet with high-level members in Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, Fields sent a stern email to one of the meeting organizers, condemning Lawson-Muhammad’s participation in the event. “We take offense to her inclusion given the failure of the South Orange-Maplewood School District to address the over two decades of segregation in its school district,” he wrote. “Ms. Lawson-Muhammad has been complicit in the district’s failure to address issues of equity and her participation in your panel is wrought with fraud.”

Fields went on to cite his organization’s own lawsuit, and said “Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s tenure on the Board of Education has been marked by denial, defense and outright ignorance regarding the plethora of data that confirms the damage done to Black students by the district’s practices.” He told the organizer, Paul Scully of Building One America, that he would be making his concerns about Lawson-Muhammad known to the governor’s staff, and that any school integration effort that includes Lawson-Muhammad would not succeed.

Lawson-Muhammad told The Intercept the complaint against her — and the second one against Baker, the school board president (which was eventually dismissed) — was “absolutely” a chance for Fields to swipe at his political opponents. “He saw it as an opportunity to bring down the board, one hundred percent,” she said. “He’s suing the board, and he’s been against the board since before me.”

LAWSON-MUHAMMAD WASN’T overly concerned going into the state ethics hearing in November, because she knew the arguments Fields had been using against her weren’t true. She hadn’t tried to use her position on the school board to evade a ticket, she was just upset and scared, and wanted the cop to understand she wasn’t a threat. Her lawyer said the worst outcome she would probably get was a censure.

Seven commission members were present at the hearing—all Chris Christie appointees, including two of the former governor’s senior legal staff. One of the commissioners was Jude Tanella, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was indicted by a New York State grand jury for first-degree manslaughter after shooting a black man in the back in 2002. The charge was later dismissed by a federal judge who said Tanella had acted reasonably in the situation, with “demonstrated restraint, sound judgment and courage in the proper exercise of his sworn duty to protest the public.” Under the federal Supremacy Clause, Tanella was then immune from state prosecution.

Tanella’s history of having shot and killed a black man while in law enforcement has not previously been tied to his role on the school board, but all evidence indicates that Tanella the officer and Tanella the panel member are the same person. Reached by phone, Tanella declined to comment for the story and referred all questions to Kathryn Whalen at the School Ethics Commission. The commission told The Intercept that Whalen could not speak with the press and referred calls to the Department of Education’s communications office. Mike Yaple, the Director of Public Information at the New Jersey Education Department, said his agency “does not play any official role” in selecting who serves on the School Ethics Commission, and that the State Ethics Commission — a separate entity — would be the body to determine when recusals are warranted.

Reached again by phone, and asked directly if he had been indicted in 2002 for manslaughter, Tanella asked, “What paper are you with?” He then added, after asking where The Intercept is based, “I have no comment,” and hung up.

The dots aren’t hard to connect: The Tanella on the School Ethics Commission is a resident of Verona, New Jersey. The commission declined to share contact information for individual commissioners, but The Intercept was able to confirm that just one Jude A. Tanella lives within 100 miles of Verona — and that same individual is the only Jude Tanella who lives within 100 miles of New York City. That Jude Tanella was born in October 1963, which is consistent with the Jude Tanella who married his wife Nancy at age 34 in 1997, and is consistent with the 39-year-old Jude Tanellawho was appealing his indictment in 2003. The indicted Jude Tanella was a former police officer in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and when he got married, his wedding announcement said he was working as a detective in Old Bridge. The Jude Tanella living in Verona works as a consultant, in a home which he owns with a woman named Nancy Tanella. On his consulting firm incorporation documents, he lists Peter Tanella as his daytime contact. Peter Tanella and Jude both share a late father named Jude Tanella.

Lawson-Muhammad said she’s been in total disbelief since learning last week that Tanella from her hearing might be the same Tanella who was charged with killing a black man seventeen years ago. The possibility was first brought to her attention by Scully, of Building One America, who started searching online for more background on the commissioners after reading their recommendation to suspend her for six months. “To know that one of the people sitting there could have been involved in something like that and not recused himself just makes no sense at all,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “And this is an ethics board, so they should know about recusing. We have people on our [school] board who recuse themselves for miniscule things, and this isn’t miniscule at all.”

At her hearing, staring at an almost entirely white male panel, Lawson-Muhammad explained that contrary to Fields’s accusation, she was not trying to use her privilege to get out of a traffic ticket and was rather trying to convey to the white officer that she was not a threat.

“I needed to credentialize myself for him, so that he knew I was not some dangerous black woman, and nothing would happen, bad,” she told the commissioners. “It was about a bad outcome, not a ticket — about some dangerous, violent outcome. Me wanting to ensure that he knew that I was a good person.”  She also denied she invoked Sheena Collum’s name as a way to intimidate Officer Horst or use her privilege as a school board member; rather, Collum was someone who came to her mind as someone concerned with the well-being of the community. “Because I had anxiety, and that was a bad interaction for me, and that was what came out of my mouth,” she said. “I did not pick up the phone. I did not call her. But my instinct was, I want to talk to her because I don’t like how this feels.”

Lawson-Muhammad also said the officer’s tattoo of a skull on his arm made her nervous, and that recent incidents she had observed personally and seen on the news and social media involving black people and the police were fresh on her mind, including one that involved the son of a good friend of her’s and the South Orange Police Chief whom she later called a “skinhead.” She apologized for her behavior and said she wasn’t proud of it. “My reaction was something that I would never have wanted anyone to see and my own [child] had to see in the car,” she had said. “When [my child] came home, [my child] said mommy you were not nice to that officer, you owe him an apology. And I knew that.”

The ethics commission, however, did not believe Lawson-Muhammad’s testimony about her state of mind and motivations. “Based on its review of the testimonial and documentary evidence, the Commission does not find Respondent’s testimony about why she immediately identified herself as a Board member (i.e., safety concerns) to be credible or convincing,” their opinion read.

The commission insisted that Lawson-Muhammad was trying to “leverage her position” to get out of a court summons, and that she mentioned Sheena Collum’s name in order to “impress upon the police officer that she knew and had a relationship with the Village President.”

The commission went further in chastising Lawson-Muhammad for her “offensive and inappropriate language” and her “verbal abuse” and said it could have given the impression that she or the school board “is biased and/or not impartial.” And while she met with Chief Officer Kroll in person and issued a public apology that praised Officer Horst for his patience during their interaction, the Commission criticized her for never “personally apologizing” to Horst.

The School Ethics Commission sent its recommendation for a six-month suspension to the governor’s office, and the findings or recommended penalty can be appealed. Murphy’s office did not respond to questions on the commission’s proposed suspension, or on whether Tanella should have recused himself.

So far, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education has not issued any statement on the recommendation, and Board President Annemarie Maini told The Intercept she does not have any authority to speak on behalf of the board on any matter. “Our by-laws do not empower the president to speak on behalf of the majority of the board, and in the past we have been unable to gain unanimity on statements,” she said. Village President Collum and Chief Officer Kroll also did not return requests for comment.

Fields cheered the School Ethics Commission’s decision. “We absolutely applaud it,” he said. “I brought that complaint because she was in the wrong, and I think they saw the truth and agreed that she violated the state’s ethics laws and that none of her defenses for her behavior were credible.”

Lawson-Muhammad said she definitely plans to fight the decision. “It’s just wrong and sets bad precedent,” she said. “It erases reality for me as a black woman and to have people that are like ‘I don’t believe you’ is just completely unacceptable.”

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