Spencer & Watson Coleman Commend Billboard Campaign to Deter Would-Be Carjackers in Essex County, but Raise Concerns about Potential Stereotyping

At least two of the three billboards released to public feature convicted carjackers who happen to be black; legislators say campaign runs risk of generalizing false image about black men


(TRENTON) – While commending local, state and federal law enforcement for attempting to tackle the rise in carjackings in Essex County, Assemblywomen Grace Spencer (D-Essex) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) are questioning the inclusion of mug shots from convicted carjackers – both of whom happen to be African-American – in the awareness campaign, which they said runs the risk of turning African American men into the “poster child” or “face” of carjackers.

The initiative, launched earlier this week by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, includes billboards, bus placards and flyers. At least two of the three billboards made public feature the faces of convicted carjackers. The two men are African-American.

“I applaud the Essex County authorities, as well as the other law enforcement agencies involved, in their effort to quell this growing problem. Carjackers rob people not only of their vehicles, but their sense of security. It is a potentially dangerous crime and any effort to control it is welcomed,” said Spencer. “However, I am concerned that these billboards will suggest that African-American males are being represented as the ‘face of carjackers.’ Certainly there is a better way to get this important message across without potentially vilifying an entire segment of the population.”

“Carjacking has reached epidemic proportions in Essex County, so I applaud Essex County and all parties involved in this attempt to raise awareness about the penalties and consequences that should be expected, if you engage in this type of criminal activity,” said Watson Coleman. “But I am also worried about the distorted message that these billboards might send. Considering what we saw in the Trayvon Martin case, and the way that African American men are often portrayed, or better yet how they are misrepresented in the media and pop culture, I don’t think this concern is far-fetched.”

Added Spencer, “The point of this campaign is to raise awareness among would-be carjackers, particularly younger ones who may be unaware of the severity of the penalties for this crime. So why not highlight the sentences they could face, or the fact that if caught and convicted, there is a good chance they will be serve their time far from home, hence limiting visits from loved ones? Knowing that they might face up to 20 years in prison with limited visitation might be a better deterrent.”

“I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, especially when it comes to proactively fighting crime, but I also think we have to be careful about how we go about it, so that we don’t inadvertently make targets of an entire group of people based on the mistakes of a few,” added Watson Coleman.