Profiles of Men Who 'Fit the Description'

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

But the collective experience of young men in Jamaica may explain why black men are planning a march in Midtown this Saturday and why grandmothers cried in the church pews as pastors eulogized Bell. A few professors at York College felt compelled last week to turn their classes over to anguished discussion of the shootings.

Ask Michael Flynn, a bearded psychology professor, how his students are handling this, and he recalls former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's anti-crime campaign when "two of my best students could not show up for exams because they were put in police lineups."

Last week, Flynn and Prof. Linda Grasso again took the role of students and listened.

Richards lives in Jamaica and serves as a youth minister at his church. A year ago, he walked to church in his finest suit, hands jammed in his pockets. As he rounded a corner on a street of single-family houses, two officers spotted him and one raised his gun, ordering him: Take your hands out of your pockets!

The police were investigating a shooting from the night before and feared Richards was a Dapper Dan gang member in search of more victims.

The cop's hands wavered; Richards could smell the adrenaline, his and theirs. In a methodical voice he said he-was-taking-his-hands-out-of-his-pockets-and-raising-his-arms-over-his-head.

Fear? Embarrassment burned worse. "I felt violated, I can't even explain it," Richards said. "Imagine someone I minister to seeing that?"

You'd like to think that's it and turn to Deacon, but Richards has another story. A few months later, he drove his church's white van to a youth basketball game. He had 11 black teenagers in his care. A police car flashed its lights and Richards pulled to the curb.

"They said there was an incident the night before with a van," Richards says, his face wrinkling in disgust. "I asked them, 'And that van, it had my church's name printed on the side of it?' "

The officers didn't appreciate his humor. They told the kids to get out and spent an hour ransacking the van. Richards arrived at the gym so late that the team had to forfeit the game.

Now let's complicate the moral calculus: During the high-water mark of crack-fueled killings in the early 1990s, simply walking down a block of single-family houses in Jamaica to an evening PTA meeting was to risk your life. Then-Mayor David N. Dinkins (D), a black man, hired thousands of new officers and Giuliani sent them into the street and crime fell. No one argues that every kid is a baby-faced innocent or that every "blue and white," as the police are known, is an oppressor.

Omar Haughton, 26, has no angel wings, he'll tell you that for sure. Five years ago, he and his friends were sitting in a stolen car when a patrol car pulled up. He ran, a cop shot him through the arm, he said, hiking his sports jersey in the food court to display his scars. "You came to the right man!" he said.

Haughton did three years in state prison. He works construction, respects a lot of cops, and knows the rules: Walk the sidewalk, "you got to have an ID" -- police have asked for his at least a dozen times. Drive? Expect to get pulled over.

And after midnight, just go home. "The wolves come out and it's just them and the cops," he said.

The aggressive policing purchases some peace, and the cost is both tangible and psychological. At least one male on 75 percent of the blocks in Jamaica went to state prison in 2003, according to data compiled by the Justice Mapping Center. Put another way, this black community district accounts for 9 percent of the males in Queens, but 23 percent of the borough's prison admissions.

"Some cops get a bad rap, I know that," Deacon said. "But the sense you get is that we're not supposed to go out or wear a do-rag. What's the justification for stereotyping us?"

Richards has something else to say. He had given a lot of thought to becoming a police officer; he had even scored in the 99th percentile on the police test. Good salary, benefits, retirement after 20 years -- what's not to like, except this:

"How could I become something that everyone is scared of now? How could I risk becoming what scares me?"

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