There are many days when I feel hopeful about the progress we’ve made in this country when it comes to race.
I walk around feeling all sunny and optimistic, wishing my late parents could see how things have improved since their days of attending racially segregated schools and being denied service at hotels and restaurants in the Jim Crow South.
Friday was not one of those days.
The mistrial declared in the case of former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. reminds me that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to race.
We have a lot to do when a jury can convict Nucera of lying to the FBI but not reach a unanimous verdict on charges that he committed a hate crime and violated a black teenager’s civil rights. Nine white and three black jurors deliberated for more than 45 hours over eight days but couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on the two most serious charges.
Authorities produced 81 different recordings secretly made by Bordentown Sgt. Nathan Roohr, in which Nucera can be heard disparaging African Americans, comparing them to ISIS and making statements like, “They have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it.” He also said insulting things about other minorities and gays.
Roohr and another officer also testified during Nucera’s trial that they saw him strike Timothy Stroye, then, 18, during a 2016 arrest at a Ramada hotel. Hotel workers summoned police after Stroye was spotted in the pool and they saw that his bill hadn’t been paid. A scuffle broke out. Backup arrived, and Roohr testified that Nucera palmed Stroye’s head “like a basketball” and slammed it against a wall — though Stroye was already handcuffed.
Afterward, Nucera was overheard telling one of the officers that he had responded to the call for backup because there were “six unruly [expletive, N-word].”
We have a lot of work to do as a nation when officers with ugly racial biases like Nucera are allowed to be in positions of authority. During his 10-year tenure as police chief, Nucera intentionally authorized the use of police dogs at certain high school basketball games to intimidate black people in attendance. He also openly disparaged blacks, calling them the N-word and “moulinyans,” an Italian epithet for blacks. Nucera was recorded as having described President Donald Trump as “the great hope for white people.”
Nucera couldn’t be more wrong. The great hope for all of us is to do like those two officers and speak up in the face of injustice. Roohr took a huge risk by making those recordings. He’s the real hero in all of this. I wish I could personally shake his hand, thank him, and urge him not to be discouraged by the jury’s failure to reach a verdict on the more serious charges.
It’s now clear that Nucera will be retried. But I know better than to get my hopes up. Call me cynical, but if Amber Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, can be sentenced to only 10 years, and hugged and comforted, after being convicted of killing an unarmed black man in his own apartment, what are the chances that Nucera will get prison time for allegedly striking a black teenager?
Besides, what would be different when Nucera is tried again? Perhaps not much. There may still be jurors who refuse to convict no matter how much evidence is presented. Especially if it’s a case involving a white cop and a black victim. That’s because we still have a lot of work to do in this country when it comes to race.