Letter From New York
Profiles of Men Who 'Fit the Description'
Thursday, December 14, 2006
The stomach flutter starts as a cop strolls up, or a patrol car flashes its lights, or two officers stand atop the escalator at the Jamaica Center in Queens and run their eyes over the subway riders.
"I see a cop and I can't help it -- I feel butterflies," said Tareaphe Richards, 21, a college student with an oval face and husky good looks. "They'll pull me aside sometimes because they say I fit the description. Yeah. Young black male. I always 'fit the description.' "
Dwayne Deacon nods as Richards finishes. They are standing in the student center at York College, a publicly funded junior college in Queens with a predominantly nonwhite student body. Deacon is fine-featured and dark-hued with a white do-rag and a trace of the West Indies in his voice.
"This summer I'm riding my bike back from the park and an undercover cop runs at me yelling, 'Stop! Now!' He told me only drug dealers ride bikes," Deacon said.
Deacon, 24, who is a health sciences major, flashed a college ID and the cop eventually let him pedal away. "It's like they just wanted to humiliate me."
About three weeks have passed since undercover officers shot 50 bullets at three young black men after they exited a strip club at 4 a.m. on a Saturday. Sean Bell took a bullet in the neck and died on what was to be his wedding day. One of his friends was hit 15 times but lived. Why the shootings happened remains clouded. Police say an undercover officer flashed a badge and shouted stop. Bell's car brushed the officer's leg; the cop fired. It took less than a minute from beginning to end.
Or maybe, as two witnesses insist, the cop did not identify himself and the young men mistook him for a gang member and tried to flee, and the cops panicked.
Listen to police brass and talk to many in the city's prosperous majority-white areas, and what transpired in a black Queens neighborhood is understood as one terrible misapprehension piled upon another. The reality is that crime as well as fatal shootings by police have declined sharply.
Eric Johnson, a rosy-cheeked white sophomore at New York University, stops on a corner in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. "Something terrible happened, but I couldn't judge a department by the actions of a few guys," he said. "When I see a cop, I feel safer."
But in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens, reality shifts. Stories like those of Deacon and Richardson are the daily currency. I was driving, laughing with friends, listening to music when a cop demanded an ID, pushed me, told me to shut up and stand in a lineup.
The Washington Post interviewed 12 young black men in Jamaica -- streetwise and college students alike -- and each said he had been stopped by police at least three times. The Post interviewed 12 young white men in Greenwich Village and Tribeca in Manhattan. Just one of them reported ever being stopped by an officer, for skateboarding in a subway station.
This was by no means a scientific study and some of the facts undergirding the stories are uncertain. Even the black men interviewed tended to agree that New York's police are not as aggressive as they were in the 1990s, when special units stopped and frisked 16 innocent young men for every one they arrested.