N.J. state police in Newark trained hotel, motel staffs to be drug informers

No race profile was used, though agency told spies to report Spanish speakers

April 29, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRENTON, N.J. -- In an effort to catch drug smugglers who travel through Newark International Airport, New Jersey state police have quietly enlisted workers at dozens of motels to tip them off about guests who pay for rooms in cash, receive a flurry of telephone calls or, in some cases, simply speak Spanish, according to people who have participated in the program.

The Hotel-Motel Program, operated from the state police special projects unit since the early 1990s, has recruited managers and employees at an undisclosed number of places to act as informers in their anti-drug initiative.

Troopers shown receipts

Hotel managers who participate in the program say they allow troopers to routinely leaf through the credit-card receipts and registration forms of guests without a warrant and to offer $1,000 rewards to hotel workers whose tips lead to arrests.

In return, the hotel and motel managers say, they are assured that any searches or arrests will occur after the suspect leaves the hotel premises, and their workers will not be required to testify or have their names disclosed in court documents.

At the heart of the program are the troopers' surveillance seminars, which train front-desk clerks, bellhops and porters to scrutinize guests who fit the profile of drug traffickers by asking for corner rooms, hauling trailers behind their cars or frequently moving from room to room.

Several hotel employees and union leaders said troopers have also trained them to take racial characteristics into account and pay particular attention to guests who speak Spanish.

State police officials, who have been besieged for years by charges that troopers illegally target black and Hispanic motorists, acknowledge that hotel personnel have been enlisted as informers, but they vehemently deny that race plays any role.

Lt. Bruce Geleta, who commands the unit, declined to discuss what factors troopers teach hotel employees to look for, saying that he did not want to alert the drug traffickers to his tactics. But he insisted race was not among them.

`We're very careful'

"Believe me, these days, we're very careful not to do anything like that," he said in an interview last month.

But Clo Smith, a front desk clerk at a Holiday Inn near Newark Airport, said she sat through the hour-long seminar three years ago and was offended that the state police detective suggested that Spanish-speaking guests should be treated with more suspicion than those who speak English.

"Let's just say I found it somewhat insensitive," said Smith, the union steward for Teamsters Local 819, which represents front desk employees at the hotel.

David Feeback, president of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 69 in Secaucus, N.J., said some union members have also complained that troopers have pressured them to participate and report some of the patrons at hotel restaurants who pay with large sums of cash.

"It's racial profiling, plain and simple," Feeback said. "They shouldn't be discriminating against people that way. And if any of my members ask, I tell them to have nothing to do with it."

But one manager involved in the program, Fred Hartman, who runs the Ramada Inn Newark Airport, said he never actually sat through a training session, but was convinced that it did not involve race.

Profiling denied

"There's no profiling whatsoever," said Hartman, who added that he frequently allowed troopers to check credit-card receipts and guest registration forms.

Geleta said he would not provide a racial breakdown of those people stopped, searched or arrested as part of the Hotel-Motel Program. John Hagerty, a spokesman for the state police, also declined to disclose the names or court case numbers of people who were prosecuted after being arrested by troopers in the Hotel-Motel Program.

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