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Black History Is Our History: New Jersey Chapter Of Black Prosecutors Association Founded On Desire To Build Trust With Community

TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- It's Black History Month and we are highlighting an association that supports and uplifts Black prosecutors.

The Black Prosecutors Association was started in the early 1980s after a Denver prosecutor realized he had very few colleagues nationwide that looked like him. It has since grown, with its newest local chapter starting in New Jersey.

More than 40 years ago, Anne Thompson, the first woman and first African American federal judge in New Jersey, spoke to a 4th grade class in Trenton and changed the life of then-student Tracy Thompson - no relation.

"There she was standing, so regal... and explained to us that she was a prosecutor," Tracy Thompson told CBS2's Lisa Rozner. "And from then on, every day for the rest of my life was about how do I get to be a prosecutor."

Tracy Thompson is now New Jersey's acting insurance fraud prosecutor for the attorney general. She earned degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Temple Law School, despite seeing a lot as a young girl.

Her father was incarcerated for a period of time and died when she was 17. Two relatives were murdered. As a child, her classmate and friend Jon Mitchell was raped and killed in Trenton.

It only fueled Thompson to play a part in making sure the criminal justice system was fair to all.

"People who I am prosecuting have more faith and confidence that they're going to get a fair shot," she said.

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Thompson is part of the newly formed New Jersey chapter of the Black Prosecutors Association. It is the latest branch of the national association, which was started more than 35 years ago by Denver prosecutor Norman Early and others, including former New York City narcotics prosecutor and current federal judge Sterling Johnson.

Early set out to build a network after the NAACP had asked for an East Coast prosecutor to sit on a panel and he realized he did not know any.

Karen Gwynn is the president of New Jersey's association and a senior prosecutor in the Bergen County Prosecutor's office.

"There's that struggle between the police and the community and we're in the between, because we work very strongly with the police, but we also live in our communities. So I thought it was very important we started the chapter this year," Gwynn said.

It's estimated only 5-10% of the state's prosecutors are Black.

The association focuses on recruitment, retention and promotion of Black prosecutors, but also preserving their mental health.

"What we see is the media picking up what has been going on for many years," said Essex County Prosecutor Anthony Higgins. "And now we have this community, this association where we could talk about it."

"Sometimes you're the only one that looks like you in the office and that can be a very lonely place," Thompson said.

For instance, Thompson says people once questioned whether her braids were professional enough for interviews. She encourages colleagues to keep them if they choose.

"It is as American as apple pie, so to speak, that no one is now taken off guard or surprised or shocked to see a Black woman with her hair in a myriad of hair styles," Thompson said.

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And the prosecutors say they hope to do more outreach in the community.

Gwynn plans to pair mentors with law schools and expand a program where police and prosecutors talk to youth about their roles.

"To let them see us and know what we do and know that we're not just about punishment," Gwynn said. "I think that the perception is, amongst the Black and Brown community, even when you go to law school, is to be on public defender's side because you can do more for your community."

But she says many don't realize the prosecutor decides on the charges - if at all - and they have the ability to drop the case altogether, as well as offer alternative punishments.

"I remember early on in my career being in a courtroom and an older Black gentleman looking at me and just staring at me, and then finally he said 'I didn't know there was any of us in here,'" Gwynn said. "And so it just hit me that our community doesn't know that there's Black and Brown prosecutors and they don't know that our job is to seek justice."

Anthony Higgins grew up and still lives in Newark where he is director of the juvenile justice unit in the Essex County Prosecutor's office.

"The greatest job I've had as an attorney is to be a prosecutor. It's amazing what that position has allowed me to do to bring positive impact and positive change to my community," Higgins said.

Higgins hopes when younger generations see him, they believe they can do it too.

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