The abrupt dismissal of Colonel Carl Williams by the Governor of New Jersey, Christie Todd Whitman, has thrown a fresh spotlight on simmering tensions between the African-American community and state and city police forces around the country.
Colonel Williams was sacked after saying blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be involved in the cocaine and marijuana market.
His sacking will feed a widening debate in New York about racism in law enforcement that echoes the scandal engulfing the Metropolitan Police in London in response to the Lawrence report. Black and Hispanic leaders in the UShave long complained about unfair police harassment of non-whites.
New York, where the force has been credited with a dramatic lowering of crime rates, witnessed large protests early last month after the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the hallway of his apartment building in the Bronx. The officers now under investigation are being asked to explain why they fired 41 shots at Diallo, who apparently was breaking no law and was carrying no weapon.
Black leaders in New Jersey had already been calling for the sacking of Colonel Williams, the highest police officer in the state, arguing that he had turned a blind eye to so-called "racial profiling" by state troopers on the interstate highway system.
Condemned as illegal, "profiling" refers to the singling out of non-white drivers by police officers watching for anyone violating traffic laws.
Until last weekend, the police chief enjoyed the support of Governor Whitman. She abandoned him after the publication of an interview he gave to The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark on Sunday. Remarks that Colonel Williams made in the interview drew an instant and furious response from minority leaders.
"The comments were insensitive and absolutely counter to bolstering confidence in law enforcement," the Governor's spokesman said. "There are vast segments of the New Jersey public whose confidence in the system is weakened."
Speaking to the newspaper, Colonel Williams said it would be naive not to recognise that race is a factor in drug activity in the state. "Two weeks ago, the president of the United States went to Mexico to talk to the president of Mexico about drugs. He didn't go to Ireland. He didn't go to England," Colonel Williams said.
"Today with this drug problem, the drug problem is cocaine or marijuana. It is most likely a minority group that's involved with that," he went on. "They aren't going to ask some Irishman to be part of their gang because they don't trust him."
Black members of the New Jersey assembly have promised hearings into racism in the police force.Reuse content