Ice Creamed

Paradise Valley police picked the wrong black man to stop

"Town of Paradise Valley Police," the dispatcher answers the radio.

"This is Buck," Sergeant Buck Boehm says.

"Yes, Buck."

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

"You know where the Baskin-Robbins is by the Mobil station on Gold Dust and Scottsdale Road?"

"Okay."

"Okay. This vehicle is parked right in front of Baskin-Robbins. Looks like either two ragheads or two blacks in it. They're not eating ice cream. And the one guy is on the cell phone, man, they look real suspicious."

This Paradise Valley police dispatch tape was recorded the evening of December 13, 2001.

The dispatcher called Scottsdale police for help.

"There's two, either Arab or black males, sitting in the vehicle, and occasionally talking on the cell phone, but, you know, not doing anything -- going into the stores or anything -- they're just sitting there scoping it out."

"PV units be advised the registration address of this vehicle is south central L.A. from the Rodney King riots area."

Yes, Okeme Oziwo had been raised in and lived in the "Rodney King riots area" of Los Angeles. That fact made his attainment of a master's degree in social work from Arizona State University, his current pursuit of a Ph.D. and his overcoming of a horrible car accident to reach fame as a Harlem Globetrotter that much more of an inspirational story.

But, this night in Paradise Valley, Oziwo was just a black guy who didn't leave a PV ice cream store quickly enough.

For that, PV police decided that Oziwo was such a threat they needed to conduct what they called a felony stop on Oziwo's car. Oziwo had no police record, his car's registration was valid and he broke no traffic laws as he drove away from the Baskin-Robbins.

Still, six police cars swarmed Oziwo's car as it came to a stop at 64th Street and Shea Boulevard, near his passenger's home. With guns drawn, police ordered Oziwo out of the car, ordered him to march 30 feet with hands on his head, drop to his knees, then place his hands behind his back for handcuffing.

His passenger, Matt Lyons, who looks about as Arab or African American as John Ashcroft, was told to do the same.

Stories diverge at this point. Oziwo says police cuffed him "extremely hard, to the point I was in a lot of pain." Oziwo says he then asked officers to loosen the cuffs.

"So they proceeded to squeeze the cuffs three times," Oziwo tells me recently in a phone call from his parents' home in Los Angeles.

"It hurt like hell."

PV Police Lieutenant Ron Warner, who's in charge of field operations, says that an investigation of the incident, which, it must be noted, entailed PV police officials talking to the police officers involved, says officers did no such thing.

"There was no intentional tightening of the cuffs -- period," Warner says. "Handcuffs are by their nature a hard device. They can cause bruising. But they were not intentionally tightened in this case."

After Oziwo and Lyons were tossed in police cruisers, the two got an amazing break. Within a few minutes, Lyons' father, Hal, a well-known and influential ASU booster, arrived home and saw his son and his buddy being treated as felons. He quickly explained to police that Oziwo was a visitor at his house. Lyons and Oziwo were released.

But for Oziwo, the incident has left lasting anger.

That anger, he says, was punctuated by searing pain in his wrists and right hand, the right hand that was critical to the shooting, dribbling and dunking tricks he performed as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

That alleged injury began a bizarre chain of events that led to Oziwo's dismissal from the Globetrotters.

Now, Oziwo wants compensation from Paradise Valley police. He filed a lawsuit last month.

As with most such lawsuits, the particular wrong is deemed by the plaintiff's attorneys to be a part of systemic wrong. Oziwo's attorney, Joel Robbins, argues that not only did PV police wrongfully seize and injure Oziwo, they did so, possibly, because they had no black officers, no specific racial profiling training for officers and a pattern of brushing off claims of racial insensitivity made against the department.

Looking at the case, the broader charges by Robbins look like a case of an attorney trying to stretch a triple into a home run.

But, you can be the judge.

The Paradise Valley police force has no African Americans among its 34 officers. It has two Hispanic officers and one female officer. There were no blacks on the force at the time of the Oziwo incident.

That's because, Warner says, PV police have had trouble recruiting both minority officers and young officers. The force advertises positions in minority police association literature around the country. But Paradise Valley's reputation for being a sleepy enclave of rich white people isn't very inviting to new recruits or minorities, Warner says.

"We definitely have tried, but we can't seem to excite recruits about coming here," he says. "We also have the problem, if you can call it a problem, of having a very low turnover rate. Our officers are mostly in their mid- to late 40s."

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:

"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.

Okay.

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.

"I'm standing there, hands in the air and because my middle finger won't bend, it's just standing up straight for everyone to see," he says. "Then I feel this tap on my shoulder. It's this officer who says, Look, you don't have to be a jackass.'"

So Oziwo brings his hand down and gives the officer a close-up of his finger.

Weeks later, the Globetrotters receive word that one of their players had been detained for harassing airport security. Oziwo was let go from the Globetrotters, even though the officer and everyone involved later admitted the whole incident was a mistake.

"I was damaged goods by then," he says. "It was going to be over one way or another."

Which marked the end of his basketball career. Oziwo will soon return to ASU to begin working toward his Ph.D. in social work. He wants to have the education in place to start up a community program for underprivileged kids.

But while he's finished with the Globetrotters, he's not finished with the Paradise Valley police.

His lawsuit seeks damages for assault, false arrest and unreasonable seizure, all charges the Paradise Valley police will fight.

"You know, I would maybe expect that kind of thing to happen here in L.A.," Oziwo says. "But nothing like that had ever happened to me in Arizona. Well, until I went to Paradise Valley."

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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