Government Waste

Taxpayer-Subsidized Seminars Train Cops To Violate the Constitution

A report from New Jersey's comptroller criticizes Street Cop Training for encouraging illegal traffic stops.


If a driver looks away while passing a police car, cops learn from a checklist promoted at an October 2021 conference in Atlantic City, that is suspicious. But if a driver stares at the police car, that is also suspicious. Hats work both ways too: Wearing one "low to cover [your] face" is suspicious, but so is removing a hat when you are stopped by the police. Other telltale signs of criminal activity, according to Street Cop Training's list of "reasonable suspicion factors," include texting, smoking, lip licking, yawning, stretching, talking to a passenger while keeping your eyes on the road, signaling a turn early or late, maintaining "awkward closeness" or "awkward distance" during a stop, standing parallel or perpendicular to the car, saying you are heading to work or heading home, questioning the reason for the stop, and refusing permission for a search.

That Street Cop Training checklist, which offers handy excuses for officers keen to conduct searches for drugs or seizable cash, figures prominently in a recent report from Kevin Walsh, New Jersey's acting comptroller. The report criticizes the New Jersey company for encouraging officers to make or extend stops without reasonable suspicion and for promoting a "warrior" mentality that fosters the excessive use of force. "We found so many examples of so many instructors promoting views and tactics that were wildly inappropriate, offensive, discriminatory, harassing, and, in some cases, likely illegal," Walsh said when he released the report this week. "The fact that the training undermined nearly a decade of police reforms—and New Jersey dollars paid for it—is outrageous."

Street Cop Training was founded in 2012 by Dennis Benigno, who was a Woodbridge, New Jersey, police officer until 2015. Each year the company, which Benigno describes as "one of the largest, if not the largest, police training providers in the United States," trains about 25,000 officers from agencies across the country. The six-day Atlantic City seminar that Walsh describes in his report attracted nearly 1,000 officers, including 240 from New Jersey. Their employers covered the expenses, which included a $499 fee for each officer, travel and lodging, and paid time off.

What did taxpayers get for their money? Potentially, Walsh argues, greater exposure to more expenses down the road, including millions of dollars spent to litigate and settle civil rights lawsuits. "This kind of training comes at too high a price for New Jersey residents," Walsh's report says. "The costs of attendance for training like this is small in comparison to the potential liability for lawsuits involving excessive force, unlawful searches and seizures, and harassment and discrimination."

While "some of the observations and reasoning" described in Street Cop's checklist "find support in case law," Walsh says, "others appear to be arbitrary and contradictory." Officers who follow Benigno's advice therefore may end up violating the Fourth Amendment by making or prolonging stops based on factors that fall short of reasonable suspicion. If so, any resulting searches also would be unconstitutional, making any evidence they discover inadmissible.

Beyond the checklist, Benigno suggested during presentations at the conference that a driver's refusal to allow a search can support reasonable suspicion or probable cause. For example, he showed "a montage of people refusing consent in an attempt to illustrate that a motorist's refusal to consent is a suspicious factor that justifies further prolonging an investigative detention." If you have nothing to hide, in other words, why wouldn't you let a cop paw through your possessions on the side of the road? Surely the inconvenience, indignity, and public embarrassment are a small price to pay for helping the police protect the public.

That reasoning is legally as well as logically dubious. In New Jersey, Walsh notes, "it has been long settled that the police must have reasonable suspicion of criminality before they ask for consent to search a motor vehicle." And "even outside of New Jersey, many courts have found that a 'refusal to consent to a search cannot itself form the basis for reasonable suspicion.'"

One Street Cop instructor, Hobart, Indiana, police Sgt. Kenny Williams, seems to make a practice of stopping motorists without reasonable suspicion. In Indiana, Williams noted, the speed limit for trucks is 65 miles per hour, while the speed limit for cars is 70. "There is no fucking way that any car should ever be behind a semi if they have the ability to pass it," Williams said. "When you do that," he explained, "if you are coming through Indiana, I am going to fucking stop your ass." 

Another speaker at the conference, Boston police officer Tommy Brooks, suggested pulling over "20 people in a row for the sole purpose of asking them a series of questions," such as where they are coming from and where they are going. That experiment, Brooks said, would establish a "general baseline" of "how people answer questions," which the officer could later use to identify "weird" responses from other drivers. Helpful or not, the research project that Brooks recommended would be blatantly unconstitutional. "Without an objectively reasonable basis for the stop," Walsh notes, "those stops, as described, would violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures."

Even when a driver is legally pulled over for a traffic violation, the encounter is supposed to last no longer than is necessary to complete the purpose of the stop unless the officer has enough evidence to support reasonable suspicion of other illegal conduct. At the Street Cop conference, Brad Gilmore, a narcotics detective with the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, suggested a way around that constraint: "finger-fucking" your computer or "playing Tetris." In other words, Walsh says, Gilmore "endorsed a practice of pretending to conduct a computer lookup so an officer can illegally but surreptitiously continue an investigation during a motor vehicle stop that should have already concluded."

Another trick suggested by "multiple instructors," Walsh says, involves returning at least one of the driver's documents (such as his license or his insurance card) and/or assuring him that the stop will end with a warning rather than a ticket. While those techniques might make a driver more patient or more cooperative, Walsh notes, they cannot legitimize "a stop that has been illegally prolonged."

The report also faults Street Cop for encouraging "a hyper-vigilant 'warrior' mentality" that views "every interaction with a civilian" as "a potential deadly threat." Benigno, for example, told the cops at the conference they should always keep in mind that their work could "take your fucking life in a second" and to "treat every motor vehicle stop as if you are going to die and you might just live." Throughout the conference, Walsh says, speakers "made comments glorifying violence and the application of military techniques to policing."

In September, while Walsh was conducting his investigation, the New Jersey State Police told its employees they should stop taking Street Cop courses. There was more apparent fallout on Thursday, when New Jersey prosecutors abruptly dropped drug charges against Francisco A. Paulino-Edua, who was arrested in 2017 by Gilmore, one of the Street Cop instructors. In addition to criticizing Gilmore for endorsing illegally extended traffic stops, Walsh describes him as encouraging insubordination and making light of internal affairs investigations.

"This officer's believability and credibility were so suspect that the government could not back up a prosecution based on his behavior," Paulino-Edua's lawyer, Brian Neary, told The New York Times. Neary predicted that Walsh's investigation is "going to open up a floodgate" as other cases come into question because of the policing tactics that Street Cop promotes.