South Orange, NJ – The South Orange-Maplewood School Board member who tried to use her “civic privilege” to manipulate a police officer during a traffic stop in 2018 is facing a six-month suspension from her position.
During her vulgar tirade, board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad also referred to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead cop,” and said she was “scared of cops because you guys hurt black people,” dashcam footage showed.
On Tuesday, the New Jersey Department of Education School Ethics Commission announced its recommendation that Lawson-Muhammad be suspended from the South Orange-Maplewood School Board for a period of six months for violating the state’s ethics code, the Associated Press reported.
The commission also ruled that the officer who pulled Lawson-Muhammad over for the speeding violation tried to accommodate her by allowing her daughter to get out of the vehicle so she could walk to school.
But Lawson-Muhammad continued to berate the officer throughout the encounter, and later said he was the one to blame for her irrational reaction.
“All I needed to do was be reassured that I was not going to be hurt. That he was not a cop that hurts black people," she told the commission, adding that officer’s skull tattoo gave her anxiety.
The commission ruled that Lawson-Muhammad’s words and actions during the stop “were not warranted based on the facts and circumstances” of the encounter, and that “the use of such language by a sitting Board member, who is charged with advocating for all students, could give the impression that she, and potentially the Board, is biased and/or not impartial,” the Village Green reported.
The commission noted that Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior “implied, or made it appear, that her position and status as a board member would entitle her to a ‘free pass’ in the course of the traffic stop,” The Star-Ledger reported.
“[Her] mistreatment and beratement of the police officer throughout the traffic stop undermines her testimony that she feared for her safety,” the commission added.
She never apologized to the officer, although she did appear “apologetic for how others would view the Chief of Police based on her [skinhead] comment,” the commission noted, according to the Village Green.
“She did not appear to recognize that her words could also negatively impact the public’s perception of the Board and its members,” the commission added.
Lawson-Muhammad denounced the panel’s decision, and alleged that the board simply does not understand the fear that African-Americans experience when they are pulled over by the police.
“We are deeply disappointed with the decision issued by the Ethics Commission,” she said in a statement to the Village Green on Wednesday. “Their action delegitimizes, disregards and belittles the very real and justified fear, anxiety, disorientation and even trauma that is nearly always experienced during even a routine traffic stop, particularly if that motorist is African American.”
“The commission members were completely ill-suited to judge my fear and the real intentions of my words,” Lawson-Muhammad continued. “They lacked corroborating evidence, expertise and, most especially, personal experience."
"I am in the process of considering my options," she added.
The incident occurred at approximately 8 a.m. on April 27, when Lawson-Muhammad was stopped for traveling 37 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour zone, TAPinto reported.
“Hi, ma’am,” South Orange Officer Shaun Horst greeted her, as he stood next to her driver’s side door.
“Can I just let her out to walk to school?” she replied, referring to her daughter, who was in the car.
She abruptly ended her request, and launched into her personal profile.
“My name is Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad, I’m on the school board, I’m a community member of this town. I’m sorry if I was speeding,” she asserted.
“Yes, you were speeding,” Officer Horst replied. “That’s why I’m stopping you.”
“I didn’t realize that I was speeding,” she interjected. “I’m very sorry.”
After the officer asked her for her license and vehicle information, Lawson-Muhammad began to make crying sounds, and asked if her daughter could walk to school.
“Sure!” Officer Horst responded. “That’s no problem.”
“And then my other daughter has to get to school, and she’s gonna be late,” she cried.
The officer assured her he would get her moving along as quickly as possible, but Lawson-Muhammad’s whimpering continued.
“And I’m scared of cops because you guys hurt black people,” she squeaked.
“Ma’am, do you want me to call you an ambulance?” Officer Horst asked.
“No, I don’t want you to call me an ambulance!” she retorted angrily. “That’s an insult!”
Officer Horst quickly assured her that he was only worried that she might have been having a panic attack.
“I don’t want you to call me an ambulance,” she said.
“Okay – no problem,” Officer Horst calmly replied, before he again requested her driving and vehicle paperwork.
“That was a f--king insult,” Lawson-Muhammad railed.
She then told her daughter to walk to school, and asked the officer to notify school personnel that her child would be late.
“No, I cannot,” Officer Horst said.
Lawson-Muhammad was unable to find the documents the officer requested, and instead attempted to make the officer aware of her personal connection to South Orange Village President Sheena Collum.
Officer Horst eventually issued Lawson-Muhammad citations for not having a valid insurance card, and for speeding.
“For me to go to court?” she asked him. “Now you want me to go to court? I don’t want to go to court!”
The officer explained that he was unable to void a ticket once it was written.
“Then I’ll call Sheena,” she said. “And your skinhead cop chief, too.”
“Okay,” Officer Horst replied, before he provided Lawson-Muhammad with contact information for the court.
Just over two weeks after the traffic stop, South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMA) Black Parents Workshop Chairman Walter Fields issued a letter to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, and admonished Lawson-Muhammad’s “appalling” behavior during the encounter.
“When viewing the video, it is clear that Board Member Lawson-Muhammad attempted to exercise her civic privilege during a routine traffic stop,” Fields wrote in the letter. “The officer should be commended for his professionalism, demeanor and the respect he showed a citizen who immediately attempted to use her position to intimidate him.”
He noted that Lawson-Muhammad attempted to “manipulate” Officer Horst by referencing her alleged fear of police.
“Ms. Lawson-Muhammad must issue a public apology to this officer,” he wrote.
Fields demanded that Lawson-Muhammad resign from her position, and urged the board to issue a “formal statement condemning [her] behavior.”
“There are real incidents of police misconduct,” Fields noted. “This was not one of them.”
Fields reiterated his stance on the matter after the commission’s ruling, the Maplewood Patch reported.
"At the time this incident became public I called for the resignation of Ms. Lawson-Muhammad from the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education," he told the paper. "Today, I call upon the Board of Education to follow its own policy and remove Ms. Lawson-Muhammad from her position.”
The commission gave Lawson-Muhammad 30 days to appeal the findings, the Village Green reported.
You can watch the daschcam footage of the traffic stop in the video below: