This week two pretty shocking videos regarding law enforcement interactions with black drivers came out - one from Passaic County, New Jersey and one from Orlando, Florida from late June. Thankfully, no one was shot, killed or assaulted. But both of these videos show pretty clear bias by police involving the well documented racism of "Driving (or parking) While Black."
In the first case, a Florida State's Attorney was pulled over by two officers. CNN reports that the State's Attorney, Aramis Ayala, is Florida's first and only black elected state attorney. This incident occurred on June 19th when Ayala was pulled over for what turns out to be no reason at all...except she was Driving While Black.
Ayala was driving a state-issued vehicle, common for state employees. She had just left Florida A&M College of Law after, ironically, teaching a law school class. On video you can hear the officer asking her "What agency are you with?" She responds, politely, "I'm the state attorney."
The officer, clearly flustered and realizing his mistake, tries to pull his foot out of his mouth by declaring that he and his partner pulled her over because they conducted a random search of her license plate. He said that they always run plates and it is rare that no registration came back.
When asked why they ran plates, he said they run them all the time. "That's how we figure out if cars are stolen and that sort of thing...Also, the windows are really dark, I don't have a tint measure but that's another reason for the stop."
Got it. Black woman driving a nice state car with tinted windows. I am going to bet that if she was blonde, they wouldn't have run the plates.
Now, the second incident is a lot more alarming and frightening. Based on recent interactions of people of color with law enforcement, it is pretty shocking that this motorist, although completely in the right, wasn't shot for even asking the police to justify their (clearly illegal) actions.
Just a few day's ago, on Union Avenue in Passaic County, New Jersey, a man saw a plainclothes officer rifling through the back of his legally parked van. This man had zero interaction with the police prior and it appears there was no warrant or legal justification for this search.
After uploading the video to Facebook and reporting it to the County Prosecutor's office for investigation, it has expanded to a full blown investigation. William Maer, spokesman for Passaic County Sheriff's Office released the following statement:
“In an effort to assure an independent investigation of the circumstances around the search video, the Sheriff referred the matter to the Prosecutor’s office for a thorough and independent review. At this time, we can neither confirm nor deny any investigation conducted by the PCPO in relation to this matter."
Maer would not confirm whether the search was legal or if a warrant was issued.
This is what is said on the highly charged video:
Man: “Yo. What is you doing? What is you in my van for?”
Officer: “I’ll tell you what, come here."
Man: “I’m not going over there. I’m going to stay in the middle of the street.”
Officer: “Come over here. Come here.”
Man: “What is you in my car for when I’m sitting down, eating with my family."
Officer: “It’s open. It’s wide open."
Man: “Still. Still. You’re not supposed to be in my van, sir."
Officer: “We had a lot of reports of guns in this van in this neighborhood."
Thus far, the officer's identity has not been disclosed, but between his unusual facial hair and hipster man bun, he will probably be easily located in a small county police department.
Upon viewing the video, local leaders expressed shock and disbelief.
Activist Ernest Rucker said “How often are they doing this? Who gave him the authority to do it? What is the Passaic County Sheriff Department searching people’s cars at will? Was he looking for something or putting something there?”
Black Lives Matter local leader, Zellie Imani, said “It seems like an illegal search. They didn’t have the person’s consent. I’m really alarmed and upset about the whole situation.”
It will be interesting to see if the citizen chooses to file a lawsuit claiming his civil rights were attached by the Sheriff's Office. But even more than lawsuits, it is critical that community leaders and the ACLU follow up to ensure that the officers involved are disciplined and trained appropriately.