Desha Jackson's job is to prosecute state troopers who step out of line
Published in 2006 New Jersey Rising Stars magazine
on July 18, 2006
Updated on January 23, 2017
If it was your job to read reports in which New Jersey state troopers beat up their wives, yell racial slurs at Indians, show pornography to children and drink on the job, you might think all troopers are a sick and hopeless bunch. That’s not what Desha Jackson thinks.
“I love the troopers,” she says. “They are out on the road every day, on the major highways and byways, sometimes at night. What they do is scary.”
Jackson is the deputy director of the Office of State Police Affairs — a unit within the New Jersey attorney general’s office — and it’s her responsibility to prosecute state troopers who don’t follow the rules. Eight years ago, the unit didn’t exist.
It was late at night on April 23, 1998, on the New Jersey Turnpike when two state troopers pulled over a minivan. Inside were four young men: Three were black and one was Latino. The troopers would later admit in court that they had targeted the vehicle because of the occupants’ skin color. Their supervisors had taught them to zero in on black- and brownskinned drivers, they said, because they were told they were more prone to be drug traffickers.
The officers stepped out of their cruiser and approached the minivan. They held flashlights, talked to the passengers and began to search the vehicle. With one trooper behind the van and one alongside it, the vehicle suddenly dropped into reverse and rolled back, unintentionally, according to the driver, knocking down one of the policemen. The two troopers immediately shot at the occupants. Eleven shots were fired; three of the young men were seriously injured. After the incident, when police searched the van, there were no drugs or weapons inside. All that was found was basketball equipment and a Bible.
In the days that followed, protests erupted and national attention focused on the New Jersey State Police. Soon the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into the incident and subsequent allegations. Eventually the troopers were forced to resign after pleading guilty to lying to investigators and tampering with documents revealing that they stopped the drivers because of their skin color. The victims received a $12.9 million settlement from the state.
During the course of the investigation, authorities learned that higher-ups in the state police secretly trained officers to follow a racial profiling policy. In 1999, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman fired Police Chief Carl Williams and made an agreement — known as “the consent decree” — with the federal government to create the Office of State Police Affairs to oversee the state troopers.
Jackson was hired by the office in 2002 as a prosecutor and promoted to deputy director two years later. After four years on the job, she is still surprised by the strong reactions people have about what she does for a living. “They’ll holler, ‘All right — you’re going after the troopers!’ or ‘You get ’em!’ I’ll say, ‘Whoa, that’s not what it’s all about.’ The majority of cases I’ve seen haven’t had anything to do with race. It’s been conduct stuff outside of that.”
Jackson grew up in the small town of Lakewood, about 10 miles from the beaches on the eastern shore. Her father was an insurance salesman and a preacher, and her mother a receptionist. Jackson’s parents worked hard and her dad traveled a lot. Money came in “ebbs and flows,” she says, and there were “good Christmases and bad ones.”
Jackson vividly remembers the times she visited wealthy families. “My dad was in sales,” she says, “and we’d meet people who were millionaires, and we’d meet kids who lived in homes that were like 10,000 square feet. And I’d say to them, ‘Wow, what did you get for Christmas?’”
Jackson knew she was destined for a legal career from an early age. “It was something I always knew I’d do,” she says. “I wanted to be a big-time prosecutor and I saw myself arguing a case before the Supreme Court. I wanted to effect change and I believed I would do that as a lawyer.”
In high school, Jackson was unusually motivated. “I was always a leader,” she says. “There was something in me that wanted to be the best I could be. I just had a bug.”
She was named president of the school when she was a sophomore, organized the prom and led many organizations. Jackson also took four years of Latin — “because that’s the language lawyers used.”
With money from the Educational Opportunity Fund for financially disadvantaged students, Jackson went to Drew University in Madison. There she majored in political science and made the dean’s list. In 1993, she moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., to go to law school. Jackson attended Stetson University College of Law, which didn’t have much of a social scene. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had gone to a big party school like Miami,” she says. “At Stetson there was nothing to do but study.”
Jackson graduated from Stetson in 1996 and passed the New Jersey Bar exam on her first try. With an eye toward becoming a prosecutor, she clerked for three criminal court judges in Freehold that year. And in 1997 she became the first African-American woman prosecutor in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
Three years later, she became a lawyer for Newark, specializing in labor cases and getting plenty of experience in the courtroom. She would defend the city if, for instance, a firefighter claimed he was wrongfully fired or a union sued the government on behalf of an employee. “It was baptism by fire,” she says. “We’d have so many cases and have to go to so many places. I’ve never worked for a law firm, but I feel like that job was almost like one. It was a rite of passage.”
In 2002, the New Jersey State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division named Jackson “Young Lawyer of the Year.” Later that year, the attorney general hired her to be a prosecutor in the Office of State Police Affairs.
Her job today is to supervise prosecutors who pursue internal disciplinary action against troopers. She reads investigators’ reports, monitors the troopers’ performance statistics and conducts officer-training programs.
Jackson enjoys being a manager but misses arguing cases in court. “I had to get used to not producing the work but overseeing others,” she says. “I took a few management courses. I was really into those courses because when I was moved up I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ You have to assert a certain amount of authority. It’s been a challenge, but I’m comfortable being in a leadership position.”
“One day she was in the trenches, the next she was a supervisor,” adds her boss, Daniel Giaquinto, director of the Office of State Police Affairs. “It’s a change, but she’s made the transition quickly and smoothly.
“She would do well running for public office someday,” he continues. “She’s quick on her feet and she’s a great public speaker. Everyone seems to like her and she’s easy to get along with. She has always impressed me as someone who cares about people.”
Even the fiercest critics of the state troopers are comfortable with the job she’s doing.
“That position has put a lot of responsibility on her … I think it was a test to see if she could stand up to the organization and be vigilant,” says the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, who has been vocal in his criticism of troopers. “And she has stood up to them. I don’t think it has been easy, but she’s done a good job.”
Now that Jackson’s career is flourishing, she is determined to create opportunities for other minority attorneys. One memory never ceases to motivate her. It happened when she was a clerk. She showed up for work and bumped into a new court reporter in the courtroom. “Are you the defendant?” the reporter asked Jackson. “No! I’m the law clerk!” she replied.
Jackson considers the lack of diversity one of the greatest issues plaguing the New Jersey court system. A look at the numbers is not encouraging. Of the 449 judges serving in New Jersey, only 36 are black. It wasn’t until earlier this year that the first black woman sat on the appellate court.
“I’m hoping there will come a day when we can walk into any courthouse and not feel like we won’t get a fair shake just because of the color of our skin,” she says.
Jackson recently completed a term as president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, and she cochairs the Diversity Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association. She’s also on the organization’s board of trustees.
She is convinced that if there were more minorities in positions of power throughout the court system, people wouldn’t be so quick to make assumptions about black women. “It’s not just the judges,” she says. “It’s the entire system. We need to get to a point where you aren’t asked if you’re the defendant’s girlfriend after you just spent more than $170,000 to go to law school.”
Jackson isn’t sure what her next job will be, but she can picture herself in a robe. “It’s something people have spoken to me about,” she says. “It would be an honor and privilege to serve as a superior judge of our state. But I do hesitate to think about it because even though I have a desire to do it, let’s face it, the opportunities just aren’t there.
“I think that might change in the future.”