THE POLICE STRANGLEHOLD ON ED MALLET'S FIANCEE
The chairs in the dirt yard are draped with children openly eyeing me. They are too young and innocent to bother masking their curiosity. When their mother talks, they are quiet.
"I don't raise my kids that the police are some kind of Officer Friendly. I tell these children the police are Stranger Danger."
The black mother's chilling words are not idle chatter. Charita Anderson Curry just buried her fiancee, a double amputee who died in a police officer's carotid-artery neck hold. Since the death of Ed Mallet, Charita's brother has been arrested, her friends have been rousted and busted, her mother and father tell me they have been followed by patrol cars, and neighbors say that the family has been subjected to harassing levels of police surveillance.
Police administrators say that's a lie.
Police administrators are mistaken.
Charita tells me the police targeted her and her family because, after Mallet's death, she marched in protest at police headquarters. She carried a sign that asked, "Why Ed?"
This young woman, as well as her parents, claim the cops responded by driving past their home shouting a taunt: "Why not Ed?"
Even though Ed Mallet's death on August 27 rocked this city, igniting headlines, community forums, law enforcement investigations, federal probes and minority demands, his fiancee's charges have not caused so much as a ripple. The daily press did not look into her allegations; the media settled the matter by printing a police denial.
While officially maintaining that the department would investigate her formal complaint, the police have insisted that such behavior could not have occurred.
But Charita's mother, Connie Curry, took down license-plate numbers from unmarked cop cars that cruised or stopped at her home on a single weekend night from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. Understand that this is only one night in what the Currys say has been a pattern for weeks. Not counting black-and-white squad cars, as well as the two undercover cars she couldn't get a clear look at, Connie compiled a list of ten plates.
Police spokesmen were so sure that the Currys are not being intimidated, that this is all a figment of Charita's and Connie's black-as-victim posing, that they volunteered to look up the license-plate numbers.
Every single one of them, with one exception, is registered with the City of Phoenix.
A clearly chagrined source in the police department backpedaled furiously: "Look, police cars can drive anywhere they want to. Just because the license plates line up doesn't mean they were being harassed."
The person offering this tepid explanation was so confident of his position that he requested anonymity.
When you see what has happened to Charita Curry and her family, you know damn well what happened to Ed Mallet.
Elder Hildellred Add has lived across the street from Charita Curry and her family for years. On Saturday night, he sat in his front yard, sweat glistening on his shirtless chest. His conversation meanders pleasantly, enveloping a listener in all kinds of things, not just his neighbors, the Currys. He is very interested, for example, in the body of the prostitute the cops found that morning.
"I used to see her all the time in the neighborhood. She had different-colored eyes, one brown, one blue. Cut her throat, ear to ear."
Elder Add conducts services at Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God and Christ on Lower Buckeye. The hooker's corpse was found near the place of worship.
The Currys and Elder Add live in the exact place your mind's eye pictures when you think of South Phoenix. Both families look past their gates to a cemetery; around the corner, railroad tracks divide the neighborhood, while, overhead, cars rush past on the freeway. Parents don't have to wait for the evening news to get an update on drugs or gangs. And the cops here, by necessity, operate on red alert.
Elder Add said what's happened to the Curry family isn't right.
"You just can't do this to people, even the people that live down here. The cops have been all over this place since that boy's death, since Charita began protesting."
Our conversation is interrupted by a mother calling Elder Add from Oklahoma. The woman is desperate. Her son is locked up in the downtown Phoenix jail, and he's just called her to say a group of black convicts has been jumped by whites and Mexicans armed with real knives, not prison-made shanks. The minister calls the NAACP hot line and leaves a message before returning to discuss what he's seen happening to the Currys.
"The cops shine their lights on the house. Sometimes the officers set up in the cemetery, just watching."
When he speaks of his neighbors, Elder Add describes people he knows and likes; I'll bet you weren't aware that you know these folks, too.
Of course, you wouldn't have guessed your acquaintance from the press coverage of Charita's complaints. Her allegations were a one-day story in a month of articles following Mallet's death. After the police denial aired, Charita was left hanging out, just one more anonymous black angry at law enforcement.
But you know the Currys. Charita's grandfather, Henry Curry, might well have been Phoenix's most famous black man prior to the arrival of the Suns' Connie Hawkins.
Before his death in 1991, Henry ran a downtown shoeshine parlor for nearly four decades. His business was brisk enough that he kept employed relatives, the occasional rummy and a one-armed man named Lefty. Henry won a fistful of Best of Phoenix awards, and the daily newspapers routinely did features on this unique gentleman, who polished the foot leather of Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. But when Henry turned off the lights and locked the door at night, he drove home to South Phoenix, and the reporters in their shiny shoes--well, they didn't live where Henry lived.
Henry's son Joseph is Charita's dad. He says that after his daughter protested the choke-hold death of her fiancee, the cops followed him to work at the shoeshine parlor.
"The pressure just doesn't let up," he says.
It's now about 11 p.m., and Elder Add has retired for the evening. Joseph Curry is done working on the car in his yard and has gone inside. Charita's friends are on the street beginning to unwind. There is beer to pass around.
Her brother Sid and their friends Carl DeWayne Scott and Kenny Lane stop to talk about a recent trip to the dentist.
Sid drove his sister and her youngest child to the dentist for a checkup. Once the mother and daughter were inside, the cops arrived at the dentist's.
"We were just waiting on her in the parking lot when one squad car shows up and then two or three more," recalls Carl. "`What you doin' here? What's your name? What gang you with?' Then they searched the car. "They said they got a call from someone about suspicious people. They put me in cuffs 'cause I had an outstanding warrant for driving without a license. I was in jail for eight days."
Charita, Sid, Carl and Kenny figure that her protests caused the cops to follow them to the dentist's, shake the young men down, search the car and arrest Carl.
The police offer another explanation.
A sergeant listening to my recap is irritated that anyone would listen to the charge that Charita Curry was followed. He says the cop might well have been doing heads-up police work. "He could have been driving by, seen three black males in the parking lot and decided to check it out."
In other words, being young and black makes you not only suspicious, but subject to a police roust.
Which, of course, is exactly what happened to Ed Mallet.
The police department's own investigation into Mallet's death, recapped in an inch-thick document, makes one thing very clear: The cops didn't stop the young man because of any broken laws.
Officers had extra patrols in the area where Mallet died because two blacks had been killed nearby in recent months. When Mallet and a couple of friends pulled into an apartment complex, one of the guys asked the manager about using a pay phone. She, in turn, alerted the cops with her suspicion that Mallet was there to buy drugs. What was her suspicion based upon? Nothing. She just had a feeling. And that's it. Charles Fanniel, president of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP, told me that he has reports from residents of the complex that the manager was routinely concerned about any blacks who showed up there to visit friends living in the apartments.
But drug dealing does go on at the complex, and people are wary.
When Ed Mallet was pulled over, he did not have a valid driver's license on him, but he did have an attitude. There seems little question that he smarted off.
Eyewitness accounts are all over the place on just how the traffic stop escalated into violence, so the truth is still in labor.
But Mallet's death was more than a tragedy; it was a public relations nightmare for the cops. There were no drugs or weapons or large sums of cash in the dead black man's car. Neither the police nor the apartment manager saw Mallet break a law. Though a giant of a man, he turned out to be a cripple who walked on prosthetic limbs, and, worse, police had used him in classrooms to lecture schoolkids about the dangers of gangs.
Even with the media quickly forgiving the fatality as an unfortunate accident, the police department was on the defensive. And then Mallet's fiancee began picketing in front of police headquarters.
Charita Curry feels that her activism on behalf of her fiancee's memory has cost her family an enormous price. Her mother agrees.
On September 24, not quite one month after Ed Mallet died in a carotid-artery neck hold, Connie Curry saw her youngest child, Sid, being choked by a Phoenix cop. The horrified mother ran to the site of the confrontation, just a few short yards from her front door, and pleaded with her son: "I told him, I begged him, 'Please, baby, don't struggle. I can get you out of jail. Don't make me get you out of the morgue.'"
Sid Curry was the one who drove his sister Charita to the dentist's office. On top of the roust at the dental office, he'd been there when the cops made his family home a target. Now it was his turn.
In their report, officers Santiago Maldonado and Harry Silbert claim that Sid yelled something at them when they drove past the young black at about 10 p.m. on the 24th. When they turned the patrol car around, they observed the young man holding a can of beer. At 20, Sid is almost old enough to drink, but not quite. So the officers arrested him.
Sid is up-front about the fact that he resisted arrest, though, weighing just 120 pounds, his resistance was more emotional than effective.
"I told them, 'I am not going to jail,'" recalled Sid. "`My mother's on her way. Talk to her.'" Dusty Curry said his brother was already handcuffed, yet the police continued to apply a choke hold. Sid claims he did not have a can of beer in his hand when the police arrived. He cites numerous pieces of evidence in his defense. It would appear that Sid, whom the cops identify as a West Side Crip, is on his way to becoming a jailhouse lawyer; the police did find booze in his blood alcohol level once he was taken downtown.
But the point is this: You go to any street corner near the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe and you'll find 20-year-olds drinking beer. The difference is that those people will be white, 20-year-old college students, and they won't end up in jail.
When you arrest Sid Curry on such a petty infraction, when you claim you only stopped because some kid in South Phoenix yelled at you, when you arrest him after his family has been the target of police harassment, when his sister has complained publicly about her fiancee's death and the harassment, when all of this has happened and you bust him anyway--what are we supposed to think?
I can tell you what one of Charita's little children thought.
Charita's youngest daughter, the one whose dental appointment was broken up by the police, the one who considered Ed Mallet her dad, started screaming when she saw a policeman's arm around Sid's neck.
Connie, the little girl's grandmother, remembers the child's outburst. "She wanted to know if they were going to kill her uncle like they killed her father."
Five days after Sid's arrest, his friend Carl DeWayne Scott pulled his car away from the curb in front of the Curry residence. Carl himself had only just been released from jail following his bust at the dental office on an outstanding traffic offense. "Right away I seen the cops pull in behind me. They could have pulled me over right then, where there were people. But they didn't. They waited 'til we turned the corner, and there was just empty fields. Nothing, nobody around. That's when they wanted me to stop, where no one could see what they doin'.
"I said, 'No way,' not after everything [that's] been happening. I wouldn't stop. I drove straight to my grandmother's house. They told my grandmother that if I didn't come out, they were going to bring a 'Reign of Terror' on her house."
When Carl emerged, he was slapped with 15 citations, but he says none of them relates to why the cops were following him in the first place.
"It's all stuff that happened when I ran."
Because his pockets are stuffed with 15 citations, it is difficult for Carl DeWayne Scott to understand how lucky he is. He told me his street smarts made him run from the cops--as if any contraband or illegal act or paranoia is worth dying over. If you run from the police, or you run your mouth once you've been pulled over, you are automatically wrong, and you are inviting disaster--witness Rodney King and Ed Mallet.
In the wake of Mallet's death, Valley blacks are in something of a bind. How much hell do they raise? Indignation is matched by numbness to yet one more "unfortunate accident." Charles Fanniel, head of the county NAACP, has formally asked local police departments to abandon use of the carotid-artery neck hold.
But most blacks have watched Charita's protests from the sidelines.
Part of the widespread rage in the minority community exists because they believe the only reason Mallet was stopped in the first place was his skin color. Blacks all share that experience with the dead man.
Pastor Warren Stewart, who became a national figure when he led the fight to establish a paid Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Arizona, has been on sabbatical for a year writing a book about the experience. He is successful, middle-class and looks it. Yet he knows the drill.
"I was pulled over on Grand Avenue by a policeman. First thing he asked was if I'd been drinking. As it happens, I do not drink. I told him I was coming from the church, and he said, 'Just checking.'"
Pastor Stewart is used to having cops pull in behind him, follow and punch his license plate into their squad-car computers to see if he has stolen the car he is driving.
"This is nothing new," explains Stewart. "Almost any black man can tell you of similar experiences."
It is difficult to describe the anger that can build behind a lifetime of cops stopping you to ask that you explain your black self. You can "deal with it," or it can fester on you like a boil.
"A lot of young people are frustrated at the continual harassment," says the NAACP's Fanniel. "They are not going to take the abuse that those of us from the World War II era took, that baby boomers took. These kids would rather die."
"Profile stops"--the grilling by law enforcement of minorities who've broken no law--are so common that the NAACP's Van Braswell offers instructions to blacks about how to avoid a confrontation when the police stop them. Rather a unique classroom exercise for a democracy.
"These kinds of stops by the police are a matter of fact for us," says Pastor Stewart. "Most of us have resolved it will be a matter of fact as long as we're here. It was a deadly matter of fact for Ed Mallet. Here was a young man who'd reformed his life, left the gangs and talked to schoolchildren to warn them about gangs. His voice and witness are now silenced as a matter of fact."
Rather than continue to see the Constitution as a poignant tombstone upon the graves of their young, blacks like Stewart are taking another, more pragmatic tack.
"We're partly responsible for Ed Mallet's death. It's a matter of survival. We haven't taken the time to teach our young people how to survive in a society that still suffers from systemic racism. I have told my sons, I said, 'If you're ever out with your friends or by yourself and you get pulled over, cooperate. Be respectful. Do not raise your voice, because if you do, you may end up in jail or dead. I'm not playing with you.'"
Pastor Stewart's homilies to his boys are almost mundane. But there is more to his lesson than simple curbside manners. For law enforcement and blacks alike, it is long past the moment when a thoughtful person might worry about the consequences of an entire people looking upon the police as an occupying army.
Pastor Stewart's 16-year-old responded to his dad's lecture by popping off about just what he'd say if a police officer pulled him over for no reason at all.
"And if you do that," Stewart told his son, "I may be attending your funeral."
Charita Anderson Curry, understandably, feels intimidated by the cops in her neighborhood. But there is an entirely different response to Mallet's death at police headquarters, and it is without precedent in Phoenix.
On September 17, Phoenix Police Chief Dennis Garrett wrote to the city manager asking for a citizens commission to review the department's use-of-force policies and to explore the cultural sensitivity of its officers.
Elsewhere, such a proposal would be looked upon as a bureaucratic two-step, an attempt to bury meaningful reform in the death-by-committee ruse.
And so it may yet prove to be.
But for now, the proposal stands in harsh contrast to what blacks came to expect under Garrett's predecessor, chief Ruben Ortega.
One of the earliest police cases I covered was the Standley Wesley shooting in the housing projects.
Betty Joe "Bossa Nova" Brown burst in upon a startled city council session and announced that a riot was brewing over the shooting of Wesley. The gunplay had left the young black paralyzed. Chief Ortega went on the air, claimed the young man was resisting arrest and pulled back his sports coat to show where the officer's bullet had entered Standley's stomach.
I slipped into the hospital and took pictures of Wesley's bullet wound. He'd been shot in the back.
Shocked by this new evidence, black leaders demanded an explanation from the chief, only to be told the photos were faked. The city eventually gave Wesley a multimillion-dollar settlement.
In 1991, I wrote a series on black complaints about police treatment, including the use of attack dogs on a young boy. When the then-head of the NAACP, Reverend Oscar Tillman, openly challenged Chief Ortega, the minister quickly found himself under investigation by the Valley's top cop.
Things have changed.
"Garrett is open," observes the NAACP's Fanniel. "You know, Garrett is a different breed of police chief from Ortega."
Garrett's response to Mallet's death has been taken to the streets and to the City Manager's Office by the head of the police department's community relations section, an attorney experienced in gang work, Gerald Richard.
Pastor Stewart has already been asked by the city, and he has agreed, to serve upon the citizens commission. Stewart's approach will be a mixture of common sense and caution.
"African-American males are suspect and susceptible to being stopped because of a stereotype. I want the police to do their job. Part of the problem is, many of us would be suspicious due to the statistics of young black males. But we've got to find a way to address the suspicion equitably and justly, without confrontation and arrest."
Stewart echoes the sentiment expressed by Jesse Jackson, who said even he got nervous when he heard the footsteps of black teenagers behind him.
"I wish members of the African-American community could get just as upset [as they have over Mallet's death] when our young men kill each other," says Stewart. "Young black males are killing each other. We have funerals almost every weekend in our community. How often do we have them when they are killed by a cop?"
Perhaps the police will take some comfort in Stewart's perspective. Cops rightly view citizen review with alarm, and feel the average person doesn't know what the police face. More than one officer, for example, has asked me what they're supposed to use if they're forced to abandon the carotid-artery neck hold, which normally induces nothing more fatal than unconsciousness.
A lot of people refuse to go quietly. Then what? The next level of defense, pointed out a number of cops interviewed, involves batons, stun guns, revolvers--all much more dangerous.
Pastor Stewart's words, and the influence he will wield whatever the final makeup of the commission, suggest that street cops will not be scapegoated for the crack, gang warfare and poverty that grip the inner city. Neither can the commission whitewash the clear problem of profile stops of minorities.
But if Garrett's commission is going to have credibility, the chief must resolve the conflict between his good intentions and the fact that his administration is out of touch with what is going on in the street, with what is going on in front of the Curry home.
The bottom line is whether anything will change because of Mallet's death.
Charita's mother has noticed one thing that is different.
"Since you started coming down here," Connie Curry told me last week, "the pressure has stopped. It's almost like someone knew you were asking questions."
Gerald Richard, in the chief's office, was taken aback by the remarkable list of license plates attached to police cars that have haunted Connie Curry and her family.
Asked what he intended to do about it, Richard said, "I don't know where she got that information. I have to look into it. I don't have the facts."
He can get the facts by asking some questions of his own.
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