Ice Creamed

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

"This is Buck," Sergeant Buck Boehm says.

"Yes, Buck."

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


"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.

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Robert Nelson