Police sue ‘Prime Time’

NEW YORK — ABC’s “Prime Time Live” is making headlines as well as reporting the news — again.

Mum was the word at the network Tuesday about a $3 million suit filed Nov. 24 by three New Jersey police officers who claim they were set up and slandered by the newsmag.

Officers Louis Hornberger, Robert Tonkery and James Mennuti were featured in a Nov. 27, 1996, segment called “Driving While Black.” The report focused on police “profiling,” which is the illegal practice of stopping people who fit a certain profile — most often young African-American males.

The “Prime Time” crew used hidden cameras to tape the officers as they pulled over and searched a silver Mercedes-Benz carrying three young black males, who were then detained for about 20 minutes and released.

The suit claims the hidden cameras violated the state’s wiretapping law, and that the network hired the three black males to drive around the mile-square town of Jamesburg for three nights “in the hopes they would be stopped by the police.”

Jamesburg police spokesman David Lester told Daily Variety the officers pulled the car over on the third night, only after the driver had “violated several minor traffic laws,” including failing to signal a lane change.

“What I want to know is: Why Jamesburg?” Lester said. “We are a 10-man department with no history of racial problems.”

The ABC report contended that the officers targeted the three men because they are black and said surveillance showed police did not stop 223 of 270 cars that failed to signal lane changes at the same spot.

ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the network could not comment on the litigation, but ABC attorney John Zucker defended the segment in a March letter to the officers’ attorney, writing that “the (report) accu-rately described the experience of three black youths who were stopped, ordered out of their car, subjected to frisking and a search of the vehicle … after having done nothing more than drive into town in a relative’s Mercedes.”

Lester said the officers did not learn of the August taping until the show’s producers showed up to interview the police chief in October.

“They were very elusive, saying they wanted to talk about policing in general, and once they had the chief on camera, they sprung this tape on him,” Lester said. “And the parts of the tape they showed to him, and on the air, don’t show the truth of what happened that night.”

The suit — which names show correspondent John Quiones and several producers — also claims the network is refusing to turn over unedited portions of the tape that “prove the officers were within their jurisdiction.”

Neville Johnson, attorney for the officers, has filed several lawsuits against the ABC show on similar grounds. He recently won a $12 million suit on behalf of a Buffalo, N.Y., restaurant.

Johnson was referred by the attorneys who won the Food Lion supermarket chain’s suit against “PrimeTime” earlier this year. (The multimillion-dollar settlement was later reduced to $315,000, and ABC is appealing).

Lester said the officers decided to file the suit a year later “on principle” in an attempt to restore their reputations. He said the three also appeared recently on an episode of “The Maury Povich Show” about “victims of hidden cameras.”

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