INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Rev. Theron Williams, who pastors a church with 3,000 members, remembers taking his Corvette convertible out several years ago in Indianapolis and being pulled over not once, not twice, but three times within an hour. Separate officers checked whether the car was stolen, cautioned him on his speed and asked if he’d done some midday drinking. Exasperated after the third stop, he went home without a ticket, convinced his only crime had been driving a sports car while black.
Jasmin Shaheed-Young, who grew up in Geist and has raised millions for political candidates, left her favorite Northside boutique a few years ago and was met by a police officer who accused her of shoplifting. He hadn’t witnessed the alleged crime but put her in handcuffs and parked her on the ground. In tears, she sat for 15 minutes as other shoppers gawked, only to be released when it became clear she had stolen nothing.
Amp Harris, a promoter who has handled events for Jay Z and 50 Cent, was stopped on suspicion of driving a stolen car. Harris said the officer approached the car with his hand on his gun, used racial slurs and threatened him with jail for asking questions about the stop. About 45 minutes later, after learning the Lexus he had just searched was registered to Harris’ business, the officer released him, saying it was his lucky day.
Troubling encounters between police and black citizens are part of the history of Indianapolis, particularly in impoverished areas that fall under intense police scrutiny. But stories of exasperating, humiliating and traumatic brushes with law enforcement aren’t confined to people living on the margins. They are part of the biographies of some of the city’s most prominent black citizens - ministers and lawyers, business people and cops. Even the police chief.
“It is just part of the black experience,” Williams, pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist on the Far Eastside, told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/11qK1Qp ). “It is just what happens to you when you are African-American.”
Beyond the obvious concerns about racial bias or civil rights, the ample catalog of incidents points to the depths of a problem not just for black Hoosiers but also for police. Even impartial officers trying to do their jobs can face another kind of bias - one that leads large swaths of the community, particularly young black males, to view police as an enemy with a badge and a gun.
“There’s a mental part of it with all black men - that we are all in fear of to some extent,” said Harris, the event promoter. “I wouldn’t dare be on a dark street and let a police car pull me over. They would have to follow me over to a main street. You just don’t know nowadays.”
Nowadays, of course, is a reference to life in the era of Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen this summer, setting off weeks of tensions that have yet to subside. Beyond the conflicting accounts of what happened there, Ferguson stands as the latest shorthand reference to the decades-old culture clash between police and minorities, particularly young black men.
There’s a consensus - among the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League to pastors in pulpits - that Indianapolis is a long way from being another Ferguson. Race relations here are, generally speaking, positive. There’s a belief that problem officers are the exception, not the rule. And there’s pride that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has black officers, including chief Rick Hite, in its upper echelon.
Yet it’s clear, too, that points of concern remain.
A recent USA TODAY analysis showed that in police jurisdictions across Indiana, as elsewhere around the country, black people are far more likely to be arrested than nonblacks, even in areas overwhelmingly populated by whites. In Indianapolis, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested than others. In Carmel, blacks are six times more likely to be arrested. In Johnson County, almost nine times.
Community leaders note that, despite black leadership at IMPD, there’s a dearth of minority police officers deeper in the ranks. In IMPD, minorities account for only 17 percent of the force in a city where minorities are nearly 40 percent of the population. Black supervisors closer to the front lines have been leaving IMPD at rates far faster than they’ve been replaced. In many suburban and rural agencies, such as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, there are no black road officers.
Greater diversity is no cure all, but Lt. John Walton, president of the Minority Police Officers Association in Indianapolis, says “there tend to be less complaints against police departments that are more diverse.”
There’s concern, too, about those lengthy curbside waits in handcuffs and about the swarms of police that seem to convene when black males are stopped.
“It is just over-policing in some situations,” said Nathaniel Lee, an attorney who has represented police, but also plaintiffs, in misconduct cases. “The situation sometimes gets escalated when you don’t have to have an escalation.”
Underlying it all is a gnawing sense that police are hard-wired to view people of color with suspicion.
“The problem with policing in America in general is that it seeks to protect and serve everyone else but it seeks to police black people,” said Rev. David Hampton, pastor of the 3,000-member Light of the World Christian Church. “That, to me, is where the psyche of police already presupposes that black people are criminal. It criminalizes them. It renders them guilty before proven innocent, and it paints the picture of how they want to interact.”
Hampton speaks from some experience. While in high school, he was sitting in a parked car with a friend when two white Lawrence police officers approached them with their weapons drawn. The boys were staring down the barrels of a pair of guns just for sitting in a car outside a house where one of them lived. Today, as a pastor, Hampton is hearing a new generation of young people tell their stories, creating a new generation of fear.
“When you don’t have that sense of trust,” Hampton said, “there is a sense of lack of protection.”
Harris, the promoter, has hired plenty of white cops to provide security for his events, without problems. But when a patrol car appears in his rearview mirror, he says he feels “terrified” because of other, personal experiences.
In 1998, outside an event at the Murat that Harris had planned, an off-duty police officer on the security detail tried to keep Harris from walking on a public sidewalk. Harris said the officer became belligerent about it until he figured out Harris was signing his paycheck. In 2006, there was the traffic stop on Meridian Street where his Lexus was searched. As recently as this fall, Harris said, he asked a sheriff’s deputy directing traffic after a Colts game how to get to the entrance of the JW Marriott, where he needed to drop a visiting friend.
“I’m going to answer that question after you get that damn smirk off your face,” said the white sheriff’s deputy, who asked Harris whether he had a room key. As an added insult, an IMPD officer helping with the traffic chimed in with, “You got a f—-ing problem with what his answer was.” Harris said the friend in his car asked a pointed question: “Is this how cops in Indianapolis treat you all the time?”
Williams, the Mt. Carmel pastor, describes the feeling he gets when approached by police as more of an anxiety. Before the fall afternoon in the early 2000s when he was stopped three times in one day, he’d had encounters with police while out in the Corvette. In Fishers, an officer stopped Williams because he said the pastor had taken too long to change lanes after giving a signal. In Indianapolis, an officer stopped him for a faulty taillight. When Williams showed that the taillight was working, the officer blamed the reflection of the sun.
By the time he was stopped three times within an hour - all while trying to visit an ailing church member - Williams was ready to give up. He put the top up on the convertible, drove home without further stops and decided to put the car up for sale. A few weeks later, he was rid of the car but not the sense that he still carries - that something needs to change.
“Until the larger majority of our community starts believing it and seeing and speaking out against it,” Williams said, “nothing will happen.”
David Shaheed, a Marion Superior Court judge, sees plenty of decent officers coming in and out of his courtroom. And he is among those who thinks Indianapolis is better than many cities. But he once endured a suspiciously long wait after being stopped for driving with his lights off at dusk. Even so, his experience was nothing like what his daughter Jasmin endured after her 2010 shopping stop.
She had purchased $120 worth of cosmetics at Ulta Beauty, a shop at Keystone at the Crossing. But a store clerk phoned IMPD with the shoplifting accusation, prompting an officer to meet Shaheed-Young at the store’s door.
She had been such a frequent shopper there that the company sent her coupons in the mail. She had a receipt for her purchases. But the officer wasn’t interested; he wanted to search her purse. When she declined, he put her in cuffs and placed her on the curb. Other shoppers gawked when they passed her, as she sat there in tears. Ulta did not respond to inquiries from The Indianapolis Star about the incident.
“It just makes me feel like we basically don’t matter in society,” she said. “You can be tossed around. You can be disrespected. It doesn’t matter.”
Dominique Price, an attorney with Ice Miller who has represented professional athletes, had his most recent encounter with a suspicious police stop in 2011 while going to a court hearing in Kosciusko County with fellow attorney Erik C. Johnson.
Price, who is black, was driving an SUV. Johnson, who is white, was riding in the passenger seat. Both were wearing business suits. But the officer who approached the vehicle directed all questions toward Johnson - the white guy in the passenger seat.
“The assumption that came from their questions,” Price said, “was that he was the lawyer and I was the defendant and this is why we were going to court.” Johnson got the same impression, saying, “It certainly stood out to me as a remarkable event.”
Eventually, Price was warned that his window tint was too dark, and they were sent on their way.
Johnson fumed, convinced he’d witnessed racial profiling. Price’s anger boiled lower. Years earlier, he’d been handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car in Detroit for driving slowly through an area. “I’m almost desensitized to these kinds of things,” Price said. “You just kind of learn through experience to brush that stuff off.”
Not everyone does that so easily. At a recent public forum at Martin University, a mostly black audience being asked to consider whether Indianapolis could become another Ferguson showered its loudest approval on a woman who said the police are out of control, who said she’d rather her sons take their chances with the thugs than with police.
“We don’t tell our black sons the same things that white women tell their sons,” she said.
Those things include how to survive a police traffic stop.
Light of the World church held a “lock-in” for its youths, inviting police officers in for a frank discussion with the kids about the interaction between the police and the public.
“It was a very fruitful dialogue,” Hampton said. “You heard a lot of stories about feeling profiled, about feeling unsafe. Young people don’t feel safe from the police.”
At Eastern Star, the largest church in the city with nearly 10,000 members, the Rev. Jeffrey Johnson has on more than a few occasions used sermons to coach church members on their encounters with police. He’s had similar talks with his four sons.
Common to these conversations are simple pieces of advice: Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Use lots of “Yes, sirs” and “No, sirs.” Don’t make sudden moves. Ask for permission before reaching into the glove box. If there’s a problem, don’t get angry on the roadside. Get a badge number and pursue your complaint later.
Such tips are about to appear on wallet-sized cards being distributed by the Greater Indianapolis NAACP Branch. It’s billed as a real-world guide to interacting with law enforcement. The cards bear the immortal line from the song “Bad Boys” that seems quite relevant today: “Whatya’ gonna do when they come for you?”
There’s a long history of black families and institutions having sober discussions about how to deal with white authorities, said William Oliver, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University.
“That goes all the way back to slavery, after emancipation and everything else,” Oliver said. “When white people would come to your home, parents would tell you, ‘Don’t say too much when you open the door. We’ll talk to them.’”
Racial profiling, Oliver said, goes back to the Fugitive Slave Act, when anyone who was black - even free blacks - were viewed with suspicion by whites in authority. But it was also true for the Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.
Oliver said it can’t be ignored that blacks are disproportionately represented among violent crime offenders in the United States, but he said many traffic stops are nothing more than fishing expeditions for drugs or weapons. Studies in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina all indicated that blacks and Latinos were subjected to pedestrian and traffic stops well out of proportion with their numbers in the population. Yet in each case, Oliver said, whites were more likely to have contraband.
“It’s a very irrational police strategy that then gives rise to a great deal of animosity and distrust of law enforcement,” Oliver said.
Hite, the police chief with IMPD, experienced racial profiling while he was working as an officer in Baltimore. He lived in an upper middle class area but was once stopped by an officer whose questions quickly became accusatory. He was asked to get out of his car, asked what he was doing there and where he was going. The stop lasted longer than it should have, Hite said. “Long enough to make me feel very uncomfortable and knowing what it was.”
He says he’s not foolish enough to believe that racial profiling - or as he puts it, racial bias - doesn’t happen in Indianapolis. But Hite says bias is not limited to police, or to race. “I’m starting to see more of a cultural bias - against poor people in general,” he said. Many of the 911 calls police receive are complaints about poor people.
Fighting bias, Hite says, is why he agreed 2-1/2 years ago to become the Indianapolis police chief. And he says one of the biases he’s fighting is against police officers - that bias that puts all officers under suspicion, particularly in poorer areas where there may be some bad history. Around the city, Hite has said he can’t “unring the bell” of the department’s sins that predated him. But he can point to progress.
Recent IMPD recruiting classes have been rich in minority candidates. Recent promotions have included new black lieutenants. And he’s convinced that barriers to promotion - some real, some perceived - are coming down. One that remains, however, is the barrier put up by the community - a negative pressure that keeps black youths from thinking about careers in law enforcement.
Just adding black officers - and other minorities - isn’t a magic bullet, Hite said. Some new black officers, from middle class upbringings, still have to learn how to interact with poor people. But having a force that reflects the community makes it easier for the public to want to share information with police, and work with them.
To weed out potential officers who might carry biases, Hite puts a lot of stock into his department’s candidate selection and training process. But he also wants an answer to a simple question: “Are you here for service or adventure?” he says. “If you are here for adventure, not so fast.”
Staffing aside, Hite says police officers haven’t always done a good job interacting with the public. Some have what he calls “a poor bedside manner.” He said officers owe the public an explanation for a stop. Instead of snatching people out of their cars, they should talk to them tactfully.
In order to fix lingering problems, Hite said the public needs to report bad encounters with police. Eruptions such as what happened in Ferguson - and the riots he witnessed as a cop in Baltimore - aren’t just caused by one event, Hite said, but by a buildup of anger over time. He says police have a role in tamping that down. And listening is key.
He knows that resistance to police is strong in some circles, particularly among young black men. But he’s convinced that change is possible. “I’m a living example. I would never have thought I would have been a police officer back in the day,” he said. “But we have to recognize it is a noble profession.”
Others have their own ideas for reducing problems between police and minorities.
Hampton, at Light of the World, says he’d like to see police wearing body cameras and police shootings of suspects more thoroughly reviewed. Others suggest officers working in Marion County should be required to live here - a nod to the complaint that officers from predominantly white suburban counties may not be able to relate well to minority neighborhoods in the city.
Oliver, the IU criminologist, said perhaps the best means to reduce abusive stops and combat bias is for agencies to collect data about each traffic stop - the reasons for the stop, the races of the officer and the subject involved and the outcomes. The data can be used to flag officers who stop minority drivers disproportional to the areas they patrol or who stand out among other officers for the number of minorities they stop.
Oliver said ensuring opportunities for advancement for black officers also is a key because their understanding of cultural differences will trickle down. Also, he says diversity training - both before officers are hired and after they are on the force - should be required so police can engage with the community in an intentional manner.
In the end, police can seem like an easy target for blame, said Jim White, a former state police post commander and a public safety lecturer at IUPUI. But to reduce crime, it is important for the public to meet the police halfway.
“Community policing is about the community and the police working together to solve problems,” said White. “And there has to be that trust between both sides of the equation.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com
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