Bergen County Sheriff Resigns After Racist Remarks. What’s Next in New Jersey?

Daniel Nichanian

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino resigned on Friday after WNYC published a recording in which he can be heard making racist remarks in response to Governor Phil Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana. “Christ almighty, in other words let the blacks come in, do whatever the f— they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it,” Saudino says on the recording. “You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops.”

Initial reports indicated that Murphy would appoint an interim sheriff. But the secretary of state announced yesterday that a state law specific to sheriffs will force Bergen County to hold a special election on Nov. 6, in just 40 days. The county had already mailed 36,000 ballots that it now needs to correct. Because of the compressed time frame, parties will settle on nominees through quick conventions rather than primaries. There will be very little time for candidates to present platforms and be held accountable for their stances—and yet this expedited process will determine the sheriff through 2020. [Update, Oct. 10: With Election Day looming, Democrats and Republicans selected nominees via conventions: Anthony Cureton, a former police officer and president of the Bergen County NAACP, for Democrats and Hasbrouck Heights Mayor Jack DeLorenzo for the GOP. Three additional candidates are running as independents.]

This could represent a missed opportunity to reform law enforcement practices in New Jersey’s most populous county. One risk is that Democratic leaders, who largely embraced Saudino when he joined their party in 2016, fail to treat his departure as an occasion to change not just the person of the sheriff but also the office’s broader policies.

In his statement on Friday, Murphy talked of ensuring that Saudino’s “bigoted beliefs” are smoked out of the sheriff’s office. But the problem goes beyond one individual’s views. “I think the sheriff’s words are abominable, but they really crystallize for us in New Jersey what the racial disparities in our criminal justice system tell us,” Ryan Haygood, the president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told me. “[His] behavior is symptomatic of a larger system in which racial discrimination operates to disadvantage Black people and other people of color.” Haygood notes that New Jersey has the highest racial disparity of both youth and adult incarceration in the country.

On the same day that Saudino’s remarks were made public, WNYC’s Matt Katz published an investigation into detention conditions for immigrants at the Bergen County Jail. Bergen County detains people arrested by ICE and charges the agency for each night of detention. This has been a very lucrative arrangement under the Trump administration; the county is expected to receive about $12 million this year, an increase of 214 percent from 2015.

Saudino defended this practice by claiming that Bergen County treats detainees better than if they were elsewhere. “If they’re not at my jail, I know they’re going to be somewhere else. I take great pride in knowing they’re in the best possible facility they could be,” he said in July.

But Katz’s reporting casts doubt on that statement. Bergen’s detention guidelines are older and tougher than those of neighboring counties, and immigrants detained at the county jail are barred from “contact” visits from their relatives. “When spouses, children and friends come to visit they are separated by a glass partition and must speak through a telephone,” Katz writes. The jail also held a mother who was separated from her 2-year old child, Steve Janoski has reported for NorthJersey.com. “Whoever they bring to us is who we have,” Saudino said in response. County executive Jim Tedesco has defended detention conditions in the jail and has sought to shift the criticism to the federal government, a deflection that Murphy has also employed.

It still seemed like Murphy would get to choose a new sheriff when I talked to Haygood, who advised him to “appoint someone has a sense of the way that racism has infected the criminal justice system.” But he also called on Murphy to take bolder steps. Saudino “is a symptom of a larger systemic problem that requires action, and frankly to date the governor has not taken action to address the systemic problems that plague particularly Black people in the justice system,” he said. Earlier this month, Haygood published an op-ed that outlined what Murphy should do to advance racial justice.

Murphy “ran on a really progressive platform,” Haygood told me, but “nine months into his administration we’re still pushing him to focus” on these issues.


Update (Nov. 19, 2018): Anthony Cureton, the Democratic nominee, won the sheriff’s election on Nov. 6, 2018.