Analysis of police arrests reveals racial disparities in popular Jersey Shore town

POINT PLEASANT, New Jersey (WABC) -- "There have been times I've encountered police just wanting to know what I was doing, a group of black people strolling around the beach. We want to go to the beach too," said Felicia Simmons, currently an Asbury Park resident and longtime resident of the New Jersey shore. "I feel like we are targeted just for being black. You stick out like a sore thumb because there are not a lot of minorities here."

As a black woman who has spent most of her life in predominantly white and often wealthy beachside communities, Simmons says she has often been made to feel unwelcome, even on edge.

"That's the culture of here," Simmons said. "If you cross over to the other side of town, it's like, 'Why are you here? What are you doing?' We are tired."

Simmons is among a group of advocates who helped plan a Black Lives Matter protest in Point Pleasant Beach, one of the beach towns she frequents.

Simmons says the demonstration was canceled after organizers began receiving threats.

ABC Owned Television Stations data team analysis of FBI arrest records and annual population data indicated black people were about 38 times more likely to be arrested than white people in Point Pleasant Beach in 2018, far outpacing any other department reporting statistics to the FBI in New Jersey.

That same analysis found racial disparities in arrests nationwide in 2018 and revealed black people in the Tri-State region were on average about 5 times more likely to face arrest.

"We have been looking at these issues for a long time," said Randy Thompson, a Jersey Shore policy advocate and co-founder of the organization, Help not Handcuffs. "To me that says, 'we are intensely targeting.'"

According to census data, white people made up 96% of the Point Pleasant Beach annual population. Black people represented just 0.6% of the population.

And while more white people were arrested in 2018 than black people, the percent of arrests involving black people, nearly 18%, far outpaced the population.

7 On Your Side Investigates reached out to the Point Pleasant Beach Chief of Police, who declined comment.

We also reached out to Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra who declined our request for an interview as well and instead provided a written statement.

"Your data is completely flawed. It is only applicable in places where you don't have to take into account a massively changing summertime population. While you're attempting to selectively use data from our year-round population to make you statistics inflated for a race bating hit piece, you neglect to take into consideration that on a normal summer day, roughly one-third of our guests in town are African American. If you factor that into the equation, the factual reality is that African Americans are actually less likely to get arrested than Caucasians in Point Pleasant Beach" Kanitra wrote.

The only tourism study for the town, 7 On Your Side Investigates could locate was conducted in 2007 and that survey found black people made up 1% of the town's tourist market, not one-third like the Mayor suggested. White people represented 81% of the tourist market according to that survey, followed by individuals identifying as Hispanic at 10% and individuals identifying as Asian at 6%.

We inquired about whether a more recent study had been conducted and received no response from the Mayor.

We also looked at other popular destinations along the Shore, including Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, Cape May, Wildwood and Atlantic City.

Black people did make up a greater percentage of the annual population in all of those cities and in all of them except for Wildwood the percentage of arrests involving black people was higher, but we didn't find anywhere near the same likelihood black people would face arrest based on our analysis of FBI 2018 arrest records and the town's population.

"I think he is trying to talk around the issue," Thompson said reacting to the Mayor's response. "Politicians know that this makes them and their police look bad."

"What I would have loved to hear from the Mayor is, 'I know we have a problem but we are engaged with everybody to fix it,'" said Simmons.

A spokesperson for Governor Phil Murphy addressed our findings in a statement.

"Governor Murphy has been clear that his Administration can and must do more to address the long-standing racial disparities within New Jersey's criminal justice system that have disproportionately impacted Black New Jerseyans. Last week, Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal announced specific reforms that will bring the state closer to a reimagined police culture. These measures are an outgrowth of the Attorney General's "Excellence in Policing" initiative and advance the Governor's goal to deepen the well of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve," wrote Jerrel Harvey, Deputy Press Secretary - Office of Governor Phil Murphy.

While Thompson and Simmons said they appreciated the Governor's support, they say it's responses like the Mayor's that is part of the problem.

"Until they actually see it, they won't believe it, and we can't change it," Simmons said. "We should be creating a culture. We need changes in the laws and policing.

"People need to be in the streets. They absolutely need to keep the pressure on," Thompson said. "We need to talk about this in our homes, our municipalities and we need to hold our politicians accountable for change."
Copyright © 2020 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.