Portraits in Racial Profiling

When Clothes Make the Suspect

Nearly two hours before Amadou Diallo died of the barbaric consequences of alleged racial profiling by police, his four would-be assailants, who were cruising 174th Street in the Soundview section of the Bronx in search of a serial rapist, suddenly swerved their unmarked car at the corner of Croes and Fteley avenues.

In a never-before reported account of the cops' alleged actions leading up to the shooting that February night last year, Denise Marks, 37, who was driving by on her way home, remembers slowing down at about 11:20 p.m. after she saw four white men "jump out of the burnt-red, ugly, beat-up Taurus in a frenzy—like they were on drugs, on something really hyped." According to Marks, the men, who she suspected were cops in plainclothes, stopped and frisked a young black man, rummaged through his knapsack, and then let him go. Marks, who drove slowly past the cops, was about to turn into the parking lot of her nearby building when she saw her husband, Brian, approaching.

"I got scared because I feared he was next," Marks told the Voice. She pleaded with her husband, 36, to get in the car. Brian works for the city, but that night he was dressed down, wearing baggy camouflage army pants and an oversized, black-hooded sweattop. Marks's fear that her husband's "ghetto awareness wear" would trigger the white cops to stereotype him is not unfounded.

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

About 50 white and black uniformed and undercover officers who participated in an unscientific survey by the Voice contend that "the felon look"—that "Tupac-thug-for-life" image and posture captured in this week's cover illustration—account for a majority of the stops and frisks. Using the composite sketch, the cops assigned high and low percentages to every piece of brand-name clothing, headgear, and footwear that they say contributes to the makeup of a racial profile and causes them to confront a person. Whites donning similar clothing rarely are stopped. In the cops' opinion:

 

* A baseball cap, worn at any angle, accounts for 10 percent of their stops.

* A bandanna, particularly red or blue, hints at gang involvement and accounts for 20 percent of stops.

* An XXL hooded sweattop, or "hoodie," accounts for 20 percent of stops.

* Sagging, baggy trousers, especially dungarees, account for 30 percent of stops.

* Exposed plaid boxer shorts account for 10 percent of stops.

* Expensive high-top sneakers—unlaced, suggesting that the person may have done prison time—account for 10 percent of stops.

 

Denise Marks felt that it was only a matter of time before the four antsy cops would be attracted by her husband's "perp colors"—as Brian would later describe his attire—and come after him. He got in the car and the couple drove off. Minutes later, Marks pulled into her building's parking lot. While her husband was locking the gate, Marks says she noticed the same cop car reversing on Croes Avenue, as if to come after him. "I guess they noticed we were together when my husband started walking toward me," she says. "By the time we got to the front entrance of my building, they were again stopping people."

The couple watched the cops stop and frisk a number of residents and then get back into their car and drive away without making any arrests. The next morning, the Markses turned on the TV and there they were. Officers Sean Carroll, 36, Edward McMellon, 27, Kenneth Boss, 28, and Richard Murphy, 27—the same four cops Marks had feared might mistake her husband for a common criminal—were being accused of gunning down an unarmed West African immigrant in a barrage of 41 bullets in the vestibule of his apartment just blocks from where they lived. After the defense won a change of venue, an Albany jury believed that Diallo's killers made a tragic mistake, and acquitted them last month.

The killing of Diallo and the shocking outcome of the trial bolstered charges made by African Americans and Latinos that the New York Police Department has been engaged in a long-standing "pattern and practice" of racial profiling, a widespread, law enforcement policy of targeting blacks and Latinos they suspect are likely to commit certain crimes. An investigation into the NYPD's crime-fighting tactics revealed that in 1997 and 1998 the mostly white Street Crime Unit—whose members boasted "We Own the Night"—stopped and searched 45,000 men, mostly African Americans and Latinos, while making a little more than 9000 arrests. Even though the rogue squad was disbanded in the face of public outcry, racial profiling by cops continues. For every 16 African Americans stopped and frisked, only one is arrested.

When blacks and Latinos aren't looking like "hoodies," or as in Brian Marks's case, dressed down, they might resemble the four Ivy League minority graduates who last week accused three white undercover cops of subjecting them to a night of terror as they drove through Manhattan. Their attorney, civil rights advocate Richard Emery, called the incident a classic case of racial profiling (it belongs in the category known as "Driving While Black"). In announcing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD, the two men and two women alleged that the officers used excessive force and unlawfully detained them. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, charges that none of the plainclothes officers identified themselves as police or showed badges.

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.

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.

"For example, when two white officers get out of a car in Harlem, it is immediately clear to the . . . residents that they do not come from the neighborhood," he states. "They don't sleep there. They don't send their kids to school there. In the minds of the residents, 'Those officers don't know our problems.' "


A black undercover cop who participated in the Voice survey says his commanders often asked him and his colleagues "to dress the part," or, in his words, "look ghetto fabulous," when going out on sting operations. "We blend in nicely, but our white partners always seem to mistake us for the criminals," the insider says. "We've been shot at, injured, and killed by our own partners because of what we were wearing. Isn't that racial profiling?"

The officer says that the "friendly fire" killing in January of black Rhode Island police sergeant Cornel Young Jr. is a sobering reminder that it doesn't matter whether a cop is wearing hip hop clothes or is casually dressed. Young, 29, was off duty and in street clothes when he was shot by two white Providence policemen. He was coming to the aid of the officers, who had been confronted by a gunman. They mistook him for a suspect and shot him three times. Police said Young did respond when officers Michael Solitro III and Carlos Saraiva ordered him to drop his weapon. Solitro has only been on the force for a short time and Saraiva was in Young's academy class three years ago. Young was the son of Major Cornel Young Sr., the highest-ranking black officer on the Providence police force.

Lieutenant Eric Adams, the activist cop who heads 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, says members of his group are frequently cautioned not to consider a person's clothes as the primary reason for a stop. "I'm not saying that there aren't black cops involved in profiling; it's just that we make sure that our people don't look at clothes," says Adams. "You will find that black and Latino cops in our organization don't fall into that trap of profiling people, because many of them dress in the same manner while off duty." Adams says that prior to the Diallo shooting, members bombarded him with complaints about being stopped by white cops because they were either sporting dreadlocks, "wearing hip hop clothes," or driving around in a Lincoln Navigator, a Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz. "We started looking into this and came to the conclusion that if this is happening to us, imagine what our civilian African American brothers are going through."

Adams says his group is working on a survival guide that his members and other minorities can follow to avoid being a victim of racial profiling. "When you purchase hip hop clothes or a Navigator you do so with the understanding that you are going to be profiled," he declares. Meanwhile, Adams is urging young hip hop aficionados to be "conscious of the clothes you wear" and what part of their attire they choose to stash items such as a wallet or ID. "If they are carrying the ID in areas where it's believed by some officers that weapons are concealed, they risk the possibility of being assaulted or fatally shot."

Black and Latino community activists in the city have been eyeing with apprehension a Chicago ordinance that goes into effect this week, which calls for the city's police superintendent to designate specific "hot spots" of gang and drug activity after consulting with community leaders, residents, and others. Once an area has been designated a hot spot, people on the street can be ordered to disperse for three hours or risk arrest. Alderman Dorothy Tillman warned other black members of the city council that it was not whites who would be targeted by the ordinance, but "your son, my son. They stand on the corner in hip hop clothes. They're going to jail."

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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