Portraits in Racial Profiling

When Clothes Make the Suspect

According to the four—Jason Rowley, 25, Sheldon Gilbert, 24, Lauren Sudeall, 23, and Marie Claire Lim, 23—their run-in with police began shortly after they left work in Brooklyn late on January 10. (Rowley is a Brown graduate; the other three graduated from Yale.) All four were in Rowley's car when another vehicle screeched to a halt in front of Rowley. A man jumped out and pointed a gun at Rowley. "Fearing for his life and the lives of his passengers, Rowley ducked behind the steering wheel, put the car in reverse, and drove backwards to escape," the lawsuit claims. But Rowley could not go anywhere because he was blocked in by another unmarked police car.

When he stopped, Detective Robert Williamson allegedly smashed the driver's side window and pulled Rowley through it. Rowley said that after he was handcuffed, he was punched, kicked, and then struck with a hard object. Gilbert also allegedly was punched by two officers.

Sergeant Andrew McInnis, a police spokesperson, said officers used "minimum force" in making the arrests, adding that they ran a check on Rowley's license plate after seeing him run a red light. The car was listed as stolen, and police began to follow it. (Rowley's car was stolen in November 1999 and he reported it to the police, who found and returned it to him.) All four were taken to a police station house for questioning. Rowley was charged with reckless endangerment and reckless driving. The charges were later dismissed.

Profiler undercover: no one would mistake him for a suspect.
illustration: Gary Aagaard
Profiler undercover: no one would mistake him for a suspect.

The Ivy Leaguers' story infuriates William Acosta, a former Internal Affairs investigator whose whistleblower Equalizer Foundation investigates brutality and corruption charges against members of the NYPD. Acosta blames what happened to Rowley and his friends on Operation Condor, successor to the moribund Street Crime Unit, which is mandated to increase the number of daily drug arrests. Highly secret SNU (Street Narcotics Unit) teams focus on low-level street sales and buy-and-bust operations.

"When you run a department only to drive up arrest stats, there have to be victims," argues Acosta, who is suing the department for firing him after he tried to expose corruption. "Let's say a group of young people are hanging around in the park or on the street corner and one guy is smoking reefer. These cops will profile the entire group, and then jump out and grab everybody, who is then taken to a precinct. They fingerprint them, take pictures of them, and put them through the system to see if there are any warrants. It's called a holy fishing expedition: 'Let's see if there is a miracle when we fish. We throw the net and whatever we don't want we just throw back.' "

According to Acosta, Operation Condor specifically targets predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods such as Harlem, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jackson Heights, and Corona. "They are not going into Howard Beach, Bay Ridge, and other white areas of the city," points out Acosta, who was born in Colombia and constantly was harassed about his race and national origin while on the force. "Show me the Operation Condor for white neighborhoods!" he adds. "They don't have crime in white neighborhoods? Oh, kids do not stand on the corner in white neighborhoods! Kids don't smoke reefer in white neighborhoods! Kids don't smoke crack in white neighborhoods!" Acosta's work as a private investigator sometimes puts him in courtrooms overflowing with black and Latino youths he says have been ensnared in Operation Condor's "racist profiling" and arrested on trumped-up misdemeanor drug charges.

He criticizes the city's district attorneys and judges for participating in "sham arraignments" designed to make the Giuliani administration look good. Says Acosta: "To avoid a lawsuit against the city, the assistant district attorneys are prepared to plea-bargain with the kids. They tell them, 'We have this charge of possession of marijuana we can put on you and keep you in the system. But if you sign here, we'll boil it down to a loitering arrest and you walk out of here right now.' They sign and they can't sue the city anymore because they've admitted they were doing something illegal."

Acosta's advice to "the profiled" is to clam up. "Do not plea-bargain," he reiterates. "If you didn't have any illegal stuff in your possession, if you're not the one holding the bag, why should you admit guilt?" Once back on the street, the youngsters are routinely checked by undercover cops who force them to do their dirty work. "Any teenager caught 'Standing While Black' or 'Standing While Latino' on a corner in this police state could become an unwilling informant," Acosta notes. "The cops tell them, 'We've got you now. Give us some information. Who is selling drugs? Who has guns?' "

Even eccentric Manhattan millionaire Abe Hirschfeld—who was nattily dressed last week as he reported to authorities to answer a contempt of court charge—says he is concerned about the treatment of blacks and Latinos by police. In a statement, Hirschfeld charges that "Giuliani is responsible for the killing of Amadou Diallo because he has failed to implement the type of plan I proposed to end police brutality while I was Miami Beach City Commissioner. The Miami Beach Police adopted the plan and the city has been free of Diallo-type incidents for the past ten years." Hirschfeld proposes that cops reflect the ethnic makeup of the neighborhoods they patrol.

« Previous Page
Next Page »