Catch and Release
Mike Walker recently got bumped by the cops – again. This time it went down on a Friday afternoon as he was heading home from school with his boy Brandon. The eighteen-year-old northeast Denver natives were treading steady down tree-lined 29th Avenue toward Williams Street when a District 2 Gang Unit police cruiser lurched across the intersection and onto the sidewalk in front of them. Two officers got out and told them they matched the description of a suspect in a ring of car thefts. "He said that the guy looked just like us," Walker recounts. "A big black man."
A quick ID check proved that neither Walker nor his friend was their guy, but Walker says that Officer Rick Eberharter then accused him of representing the Tre-Tre Crips simply because he was wearing a blue hat, blue shirt and dark-blue jeans. (Actually, Walker is the son of Pan African Arts Society director Ashara Ekundayo and has been a local community activist since the age of fourteen.)
Walker said, "No way," and quickly asked the officers if he and Brandon were being detained. Eberharter answered in the affirmative, and then, Walker says, he and his friend were handcuffed, searched, questioned, checked for outstanding warrants, verbally abused and finally cleared of all wrongdoing and released. "Have a nice day," Walker remembers the officers saying as he stuffed rooted-out pencils and binders back into his bag. But before the police peeled off, Walker made sure he did one thing: He demanded their business cards.
Since 2001, every police officer in Colorado has been obligated to offer a business card if they detain someone in a traffic stop but don't cite or arrest them. This was established as part of House Bill 1114, which was passed a year after Governor Bill Owens's 2000 executive order banning racial profiling. The ban was issued in response to a series of nationwide studies that found that law-enforcement agencies were specifically targeting Black and Hispanic motorists for vehicle searches ("Target Practice," January 24, 2001). The bill not only required that business cards be given out, but mandated that all law-enforcement agencies have a written policy against racial profiling and provide officer training on the issue.
Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone got the memo.
Which is why Walker and other members of local youth-organizing group One Nation Enlightened are in such awe as they sit in their LoDo headquarters and stare at the small rectangle of cream-colored stock that Eberharter turned over. Despite the fact that an educational campaign about these hunks of paper has been O.N.E.'s main focus in recent months, this is one of the first times that they've come face to face with an actual business card relinquished after a stop.
"HB 1114 was an attempt to remedy racial profiling," says O.N.E. executive director Soyun Park. "And I know it seems like a minuscule thing, but the business-card portion was the one thing that we could get included in the bill for motorists to know who the officers were, as a way to hold individual officers accountable."
Park helped form O.N.E. earlier this year when the youth-led Students 4 Justice and the Campaign to Fight Racial Profiling outgrew their home at the Colorado Progressive Coalition. Now with 300 members, the group focuses on building power for inner-city youth of color by eschewing traditional activist circles and instead recruiting their mostly African-American, Asian and Latino participants directly from area high schools and recreation centers like the Spot.
"We're an organizing group; we don't work with activists. We don't work with people who are used to speaking up or having their voice heard or making complaints," says the 33-year-old Park, who holds a degree in political science from New York University. Instead, she says, the group works with those "making the decisions about the work and about the policy changes, because they're the ones who are going to know what's going to make an impact with the students [and] with the young people."
The most consistent issue brought up by the teens is racial profiling. So after a summer-institute training program, O.N.E. created a hotline (303-825-7676) and unleashed a cadre of paid youth organizers into Denver's east-side and west-side neighborhoods with a door-to-door survey to find out if residents were aware of HB 1114 and whether they were receiving cards from police after traffic stops. Most had no idea the policy existed, let alone gotten cards.
For Troy Ray, one of the three adult organizers for O.N.E., it's become a very personal issue. Since the beginning of the year, the 27-year-old says he's been pulled over nine times for driving in and around his Park Hill neighborhood. He's never gotten a ticket, but he's only received one business card. "I've asked for the cards, too," he says. "They act like they don't know what I'm talking about."
Usually the pull-overs are for equipment violations like a cracked windshield or because the police say Ray resembles a suspect. "The cop says, 'We're looking for someone that matches your description,'" Ray says. "Oh, yeah? Well, we're all six feet, 200 pounds, okay?"
It happens so frequently that Ray often carries around documents that prove he is not wanted for any crime, which he jokingly refers to as his "slave papers." "The police usually make some bogus excuse up just so they can take people's [driver's] licenses to check for warrants or search the vehicle," he says.
"Basically, you have to have, like, a mid-range car – we call them 'low-key' cars," he adds. "Because if you've got something too fancy, you're getting pulled over; you've got something too raggedy, you're for sure getting pulled over! You got to have something right in the middle – a Taurus or something like that."
But what about during the stop?
"Code 4 is 'no warrants'; they have to let you go," Ray says, sage-like in his familiarity with police walkie-talkie language. "You hear a Code 5, that means that someone has a warrant. You hear a Code 6, that means someone's armed and dangerous."
"Or if two cars show up," seventeen-year-old organizer Josh Garcia offers across the table.
"Yeah if you see two cop cars, that means you better start sweatin' – somebody's going to jail, for sure. But I've been let go when there's been more then two cars, too," Ray adds.
"Caroletta had, like, four cop cars and they let her go," Park jumps in. "Little Caroletta! They had their guns drawn and everything."
"That's ridiculous," says Troy.
Senator Peter Groff, who was the main sponsor of HB 1114 while still a representative, is skeptical about whether his bill has put the kibosh on racial profiling in Denver. "You know, that's the $64,000 question. I don't know," he says. "What I get are stories – so it's anecdotal evidence – the fact that police are not following the law. But when you look at the numbers, you can see that police are stopping predominantly Hispanics and African-Americans at a much higher rate then anyone else."
Those numbers come from DPD's Citizen Contact Database, which was also created by HB 1114. Between 2001 and January 2004, Denver cops filled out questionnaires for officer-initiated citizen contacts, both traffic and pedestrian, in an attempt to collect data that would identify the officers' perceived race of the person they were stopping, the reason for the stop, the duration of the stop and whether or not that person was given a ticket. In March the information was compiled and released in a second extensive annual report.
"I don't think the data disproves [racial profiling] claims or proves them," says the report's author, Deborah Thomas of the University of Colorado at Denver. "This is just the big overarching policing report," Thomas says. "It doesn't mean that there aren't individual officers or individual experiences that community members are having."
Certain trends in the data were disconcerting, however. In a presentation to the Public Safety Review Commission, O.N.E. pointed out that the highest percentage of white drivers were stopped for less than five minutes, while Blacks and Latinos were more often stopped for ten to nineteen minutes. And while whites most often received a citation (76 percent), Blacks, Latinos and American Indians were let go for no crime around 50 percent of the time. Whites were stopped more often for moving violations like speeding, whereas Blacks and Latinos were stopped at a higher percentage for equipment violations, such as broken taillights, and were more likely than whites to be given a field interview and searched. However, individual officers were not identified in the report, which is why the business cards are so important.
"As soon as we start racking up administrative complaints against certain officers, then we can isolate them," Park says. "We also want to know if it's the same ones because we know that it's a small percentage of [the force] that do, like, 80 percent of the stuff that happens to Mike or some of the other youth that we work with."
"The data shows that certain individuals were stopped more," says Denver police sergeant Mike Anderson. "I think that one of the things that we as a police department have to do is make sure we're doing the right thing all the time, regardless of who our citizens are."
The Biased Policing Task Force, which comprises community members and police officers, is a step in the right direction. Currently the partnership is working on updating officer training curriculum on how to better "communicate with the different cultures." And after Chief of Police Gerry Whitman met with O.N.E. in early August, he issued a training bulletin, reminding his department that giving out business cards is required by law.
O.N.E. has been hitting the streets, reminding residents of the same thing. With a roll of tape around his wrist, Ray shares the sidewalk with Walker, both of them occasionally giving the "What's up?" to familiar faces across Welton Street near the Five Points intersection. Down the street, Edgar Acosta is standing just inside a pale stucco doorway speaking in Spanish to a group of men seated within. The shirtless one with dark hair and sad eyes tells Acosta about the last time he was stopped by police. The 24-year-old O.N.E. organizer nods and gestures to the fluorescent green poster he is holding that reads "Stop Racial Profiling Now."
"A lot of these people out here had no idea that anything like this is around," Ray says. "You know, it's people like this that may not come to any community meetings, and they might be scared to put their names down." If they approach him, he says, then that's when he sets up a one-on-one meeting to document their particular story with the police and advise them of their legal rights.
Inside the black-arts store Black Market, Walker approaches the counter as owner Jackie Logan rings up a customer.
"If you've been harassed by police in any kind of way," Ray says, lifting the poster, "we've got a number that you can call. That way we can put it all together and try to get cops like that off of the force."
"Eight-two-five po-po," Walker shouts the hotline number.
Expressionless, Logan examines the poster through her reading glasses. "Well, okay then," she says. "Give me a couple."
"It happened with my sister," the customer says. She was driving in her Cadillac to the post office when the police pulled her over, "and they didn't even ask her to search the car, and they searched the car," she says. "And they told her, 'Oh, it's clean in here.' Why would you say something like that? I mean, did you expect for it to be dirty? So they didn't have no reason to pull her over."
It happened to Logan's nineteen-year-old nephew while he was on his way home from playing basketball one night. "Matter of fact, they were so riled about it they're moving to Florida," she says. "Not that it's going to be any different." She places little loops of tape on the corners of the posters and sighs. "You know what happens is, you get this stigma in your neighborhood, on your street. And they know that they just get pulled over for no reason, but people don't believe it. They think that they're doing something."
Outside, Ray and Walker watch with satisfaction as the posters go up in the window. Ray asks Walker if he needs a ride home.
"Naw, I'm close enough to walk from here. I just hope I can make it, man," Walker says, turning. "You never know when you might get bumped."