Ice Creamed

Paradise Valley police picked the wrong black man to stop

Recruiting minority officers can be a genuine problem for smaller police forces around the country, especially if the community has little resemblance to the community the recruit is from.

And I don't buy the idea that just because an African American isn't present in a group, that group is automatically anti-African American.

Robbins points to the fact that PV police investigations of themselves in the last five years have always come to the same conclusion as the conclusion in Oziwo's case:

Okeme Oziwo in his Globetrotters days.
Okeme Oziwo in his Globetrotters days.

"Allegations of excessive force is unfounded. All Paradise Valley officers cleared. No correction action needed."

Perhaps this is true in previous cases, of which there are few.

However, I don't believe this is true in this particular case.

What happened to Okeme Oziwo may not be part of a sinister pattern, but it still was a major screw-up that quite possibly damaged a remarkable young man's life.

PV police admit no wrongdoing in Oziwo's case and see no need to add special racial profiling training, address their dearth of minority officers or have their internal investigations reviewed by an outside source -- ideas raised in Oziwo's lawsuit. The only problem in the incident, Warner says, was with the language used by Officer Boehm.

"The officer was talked to about what everybody agrees was a poor choice of words," Warner says. "But that is the extent of the problem here."

Warner asserts that Boehm "wasn't even aware" that he was pulling over a black man when he made the stop.

But, Warner says, Boehm had a right to be suspicious because cops were on the lookout for "a black gang from Los Angeles" that had been responsible for jewelry thefts in the area.


Then I read him the dispatch transcript in which Boehm says he's spotted "either two ragheads or two blacks" outside the Baskin-Robbins.

Warner responds with what I rate as the top piece of spin I've heard this year.

"The officer said black or Arab,'" Warner says. "So, like I said, he didn't know."

"How was this not racial profiling?" Oziwo asks. "The most important thing is to make sure they don't do something like this again. Because with all their guns pulled and all the screwed-up assumptions in their heads, somebody could get killed."

In Oziwo's case, it was a relatively minor injury. But in his profession, a minor injury, especially after the grisly series of major injuries he had already suffered, can mean the end of a career and a dream.

Oziwo, whose father immigrated from Nigeria, was born and raised in Los Angeles. Growing up, he was a very good student and an even better basketball player.

In the late 1990s, Oziwo came to ASU to play basketball and pursue a degree in social work.

In August of 1999, just before his sophomore year, Oziwo was driving back to Tempe from his home in California when he fell asleep at the wheel. When he came to, both his car and his body were mangled. He broke several bones, including his pelvis, and almost lost his arm. During his two months in the hospital, several doctors said he'd be lucky to walk again, let alone play basketball.

But with the help of Rich Winter, the strength coach at ASU, Oziwo did make an almost full recovery. He had lost some quickness, which stopped him from being a top college player, but he regained his unique ball-handling skills around the basket.

"Rich Winter just did amazing work," Oziwo says. "I owe so much to him. My life is so much different because of the help and insights he gave me."

One of Oziwo's teammates at ASU got invited to try out for the Globetrotters. Oziwo tagged along. Enamored of Oziwo's ball-handling and dunking skills, as well as his character and personality, the Globetrotters offered him a job.

In his first tour with the Globetrotters, he traveled throughout Europe and South America. Then came September 11, 2001, which disrupted travel plans, and worse, December 13.

After the police incident, Oziwo says he awoke with numbness and pain in his wrists. The numbness in his right hand extended up into his middle finger.

Doctors said the ligament in the finger was strained.

He stayed away from practice for a month. Even when he returned, though, the numbness remained.

During the first practice with the injury, he got that same finger caught in the net as he went up to dunk. This time, the ligament was fully torn.

"I had an option to get surgery or to play," he says. "And I decided to try to play."

But he was clearly damaged goods on the court. His middle finger would no longer bend.

That middle finger led to one of the strangest stories I've heard. Oziwo's take on what happened is supported by court documents.

During a particularly grueling public relations tour along the East Coast, Oziwo and other Globetrotters had to pass through security at three different small airports.

Each time, likely because of the Muslim name, Oziwo was picked for a full search.

At the third airport, the security officer doing the search took offense at what he thought was Oziwo was flipping him off.

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