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When Traffic Stops Go Bad -- How Cops Demean Black and Brown Men

Posted: Dec 31, 2012

INGLEWOOD, CA. -- Traffic stops by police in urban communities go bad far too frequently because of patrol policies that demean and rob minority residents of their dignity -- especially African American males. This writer experienced one such encounter on Dec. 22, 2012, on a cold, wet, drizzly Saturday night at approximately 8:25 p.m.

My 16-year-old son and I were headed to a neighborhood market for dinner, when Inglewood police flashed their lights for me to pull over for a traffic infraction (expired registration). I nervously peered through my rear view mirror. Night stops are often accompanied by cops overstepping the bounds of authority in one way or another.

The lead officer ordered me to exit my Ford 350 van, and asked me to raise my arms while he patted me down. My son was then ordered to exit the van after which he was patted down. Our behavior was cooperative and non-threatening. The two officers -- a white male and black female -- didn't say what they were searching for, or why they patted us down.

The male officer then ordered us to sit on the street curb, even though rain was falling steadily, and the curb was very wet. I'd witnessed black males sitting on the street curb numerous times in the past, and always considered it to be demeaning. I asked if I could remain standing while the officers ran our license plate. He insisted that I “should sit on the curb.”

At one time I might have considered politely refusing and asking the officer to call his sergeant. But considering how many times incidents like this wind up with black males in handcuffs, or with their faces flat on the ground and hog-tied, I sat down. I also had my son to think about. The female cop then ordered both of us to extend our legs and cross them. A few minutes later, she invited us to sit in the rear of the patrol car while they ran our plates. I refused.

This was presumed guilt. I was furious, but was not going to be provoked. As editor of several local newspapers for over 37-years, I have published many stories of police abuse of African American males accompanied by graphic photos revealing wanton physical abuse.

I have been stopped by police and deputies before, even asked once by deputies who searched my car whether the “gun in the back seat" belonged to me. I've never owned a gun, and only after I told them I worked as a local editor with a line of communication directly to the County Sheriff and Los Angeles Chief of Police, did they dismiss the gun claim as “a joke,” bidding me farewell after using the excuse that my car matched one used in a local crime.

The Dec. 21 traffic stop ended with a citation for expired tags. My driver's license has been suspended pending a court date in March when I will pay the necessary fines.

But the public humiliation -- deepened by the presence of my son -- will never go away. Never have I been subjected to a pat down and car search, and ordered to sit on a street curb in the view of hundreds of passing motorists. My son has always been taught to respect law enforcement and he remained calm throughout. After this experience, he told me his respect for cops and deputies has lessened.

Too often, cops rob black men of their dignity during such encounters. There needs to be a serious public dialogue about policies governing traffic stops, pat downs, car searches and curb sitting -- policies that are routinely applied in urban cores but rarely practiced in the suburbs. (In all my years I have never witnessed a 60-year old white male sitting on the street curb with his legs extended, much less in the rain, while his license plate is run through the computer.) Video cameras should be mounted on police and sheriff's cruisers to monitor officers' behavior. Officers who routinely use poor judgment during interactions with motorists should be disciplined accordingly.

Jarrette Fellows, Jr., is publisher and editor of Metropolis Newspapers in Los Angeles.

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