Driving While Black

I am a person with an attitude problem. I don't like authority. I don't respect uniforms of any kind. In particular, I don't like people who think their uniforms give them the right to tell me what to do. On a scale of admirability, I place law enforcement somewhere between child molestation and cannibalism.

This attitude manifests itself most strikingly on the occasions when the cops pull me over. I get pulled over fairly often. I would guess that there are two reasons for this: the car I drive--a 1976 Oldsmobile held together with duct tape--and the way I look--spike-haired, tattooed and pierced.

When I see the flashing lights in my rearview, I usually metamorphose into a sullen teenager. The cops ask why I'm driving so fast. I reply, "Because my foot's on the accelerator, which gives the engine gas and makes the car go fast. . . ."

But I must commend the police officers of Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale (I haven't been nabbed in Mesa or Glendale yet) for their patience. Faced with my obnoxiousness, they have invariably shown the restraint of Zen masters, staying polite and letting me go as soon as they've checked their bad-boy list and found that I'm not on it.

Larrel Riggs, in contrast, doesn't have an attitude problem. He respects authority. He even wears a uniform of a kind--the generic shirt and tie of the businessman. A 42-year-old marketing representative, he's soft-spoken and courteous. But his experience of being stopped by the cops couldn't be more different from mine. Perhaps the difference is in the nature of the suspected crime. I have only been stopped for speeding and for having a light out. Riggs believes that he was stopped for something just as common. He calls it DWB--Driving While Black.

On June 4, Riggs was in his car around 4:30 in the afternoon. He was heading for the Vine, a bar and restaurant in Scottsdale. Just before he got there, he noticed a cop car right behind him. The occupants of the car were EJ Echiverri, a rookie, and his training officer, Craig Malley. The cops turned their flashing light on, and gestured that Riggs should pull into the Vine's parking lot. He did. The cops pulled up behind him.

"Not knowing what was going on, I got out of the car," he says. "I asked why they pulled me over, and Officer Echiverri told me to get back in the car. They walked up to the car--hands on their weapons."

The cops demanded to see his driver's license and registration. He told them that it was in a tote bag behind his seat. Echiverri said, "Okay, get out and get it."

When Riggs had handed over the documents, he was told to get back in the car and wait.

Riggs could not believe what happened next. Neither could the customers watching from the Vine. Witnesses thought they were watching a high-level bust.

Instead of walking back to their car in the normal way, the cops slowly backed away from him, watching him, hands on their guns.

"I really got a fright," says Riggs. "It's broad daylight, I'm being polite, I've given them the information, I've complied with everything they asked me to do, and still they're treating me like a criminal."

Riggs is an improbable desperado. He has more in common with Bill Cosby than with Snoop Doggy Dogg. In fact, he seems so straight as to be almost a caricature of the law-abiding middle-class professional. The only time he's ever been in trouble was when he was busted for littering at the age of 17--and he even looks ashamed when he talks about that.

The reason the cops gave for pulling him over was a supposedly illegible license plate--it had been fitted with a photo-radar shield, which the cops confiscated.

When he'd finished running a make on Riggs, Echiverri approached his car again, and again his hand was on his gun. He approached slowly and tentatively, reaching out his free hand to knock on the door on the driver's side. Riggs opened the door, and Echiverri said, "No. Keep your door closed. Open the window."

The cops gave Riggs a citation for the illegible license plate, and let him go. The entire process had taken about a half-hour. Riggs was so badly shaken that he couldn't sleep that night. "I'd feared for my life. It was nerve-racking. They looked like they'd have pulled their guns if I'd so much as sneezed."

Is this just a case of an angry citizen overreacting to standard police procedure? Not according to the people who watched from inside the Vine. "The cops acted like they had a criminal," says one witness. "The one who walked over to the passenger side with his hand on his gun looked like he was all set and ready to go, like he was expecting something to happen. One cop stood at the passenger side, and he looked like he was just ready to say, 'Pull.'"

Jim Franklin, a colleague of Riggs' who had arranged to meet him at the Vine, agrees. "They were backing away from him with their hands on their guns like they thought he was going to pull something. The way they were handling themselves, it seemed like Larrel had done a lot more than just having a questionable license-plate cover. They treated him like he was a criminal, like they had to be real careful of him."

When Riggs complained to the Scottsdale Police Department, a sergeant told him that, while he didn't believe that the officers' behavior had been excessive, he'd talk to them and tell them to go easier. He later told Riggs that Echiverri was a rookie, and had simply shown his inexperience. "What about the other guy?" asked Riggs. He was told that Malley had three years' experience, but was probably going along with the rookie. "So does that mean that if the rookie had shot me, the other guy would have shot me, too?" Riggs wonders.

Riggs then got a call from Chief Douglas Bartosh, who told him that police officers have to be careful. "He just kept saying, 'We want our officers to go home at night,'" says Riggs. Bartosh didn't tell Riggs why the officers thought he might be a threat to their going home safely.

Bartosh was unavailable for comment, but Mike Anderson, press officer for the Scottsdale police, emphasizes the need for officer safety. "Just because a person has a valid driver's license and no outstanding warrants doesn't mean that they're not a potential threat," he says. "What's needed here is communication. If anybody has a question about why an officer is behaving a certain way, they should ask, and the officer should be able to explain."

But it's hard to feel free to ask somebody a question when he's backing away from you with his hand on his gun. And it's nonsense to suggest that this is the way police officers routinely behave in order to protect themselves. I look scary, and so do many of my friends. But we don't get treated that way. But then, we're white. My Latino and black friends tell different stories. Depending on the color of the person telling the story, you could think they were talking about separate police departments.

Anderson, however, doesn't believe that the officers' treatment of Riggs was racially motivated. "We do a Citizens' Police Academy," he says. "We take citizens through an 11-week course on police workings and investigations. They get to drive the police cars, fire police weapons and do all kinds of stuff. I'd love to make that offer to Mr. Riggs. The better educated the public is about police procedures, there's less likelihood of these kinds of circumstances coming to light."

While Anderson's sincerity is palpable, being invited to play cop for 11 weeks is unlikely to soothe Larrel Riggs. The problem is not that officers have to take precautions to protect themselves. That should be obvious to us all. The problem is that in the notorious white folks' town of Scottsdale, the cops are so threatened by a passive businessman with no criminal record but the wrong skin pigmentation.

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