Walking While Black | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Walking While Black

David James is a black man. Ginger Mattox is a white woman. In the fall of 1998, Phoenix police officers pulled over Ginger Mattox as she drove near her home in the historic Story District near 16th Avenue and McDowell. The officer pulled over the professionally dressed woman, checked her...
Share this:
David James is a black man. Ginger Mattox is a white woman.

In the fall of 1998, Phoenix police officers pulled over Ginger Mattox as she drove near her home in the historic Story District near 16th Avenue and McDowell.

The officer pulled over the professionally dressed woman, checked her out and then gave her a friendly tip: This was a rough neighborhood, lots of gangs and drug dealers. It was no place for a woman like her to be after dark.

A few weeks later, David James, 47, a longtime tool and dye maker and volunteer music teacher at local schools, was visiting Mattox early one Sunday evening. After a while, the longtime friends got into a verbal spat, and James decided it was time to leave. His car was in the shop at the time. He decided to walk over and visit a friend who lived several blocks away.

"It all started with some silly little argument," Mattox says.

A few minutes after James walked out, Mattox felt bad about what had been said. She got into her car to give him a ride the rest of the way. She was concerned because James would be walking through a dangerous neighborhood.

She didn't realize, though, that the greatest danger in the area was the Phoenix Police Department.

As James walked south down a dark sidewalk along 17th Avenue, he decided that walking in the area wasn't such a good idea. He decided to turn around and head back up 17th Avenue.

As he headed north, he heard a car driving slowly behind him with no lights on. He walked faster.

In court records, police argued that they believed they saw James coming from an alley known as a drug-dealing haven. The officers later claimed James lifted his hand toward his mouth, which they say they interpreted as an attempt to swallow evidence.

James heard the car door open and slam. He turned around, expecting gangbangers. Instead, it was a white police officer charging toward him.

James says the officer punched him in the stomach. (The officer later claimed he rushed James because he saw James reach toward his waistband.)

As James backpedaled from the blow, the officer rushed behind him and applied a choke hold.

James, gasping, tried to pull the officer's arm lower so he could breathe. He then tried to push away from the officer's hold.

The cops called that move "resisting arrest."

So a second officer approached to pepper-spray James in the face. Officers emptied two cans of spray on him.

James, hunched, wheezing and screaming in pain, began shuffling away from the officer spraying him.

He was again "resisting arrest."

James says he stumbled and fell. He says the two officers jumped on him and began beating him with their flashlights and fists.

As James moaned and cursed, the officers pulled his arms behind them and jerked them upward. James felt a pop and a stabbing, burning pain in his shoulder.

As Ginger Mattox looked for James, she came upon the scene. At first, she says, all she could see were two police officers relentlessly pounding on a handcuffed man.

"There were two of them," she says. "One had a flashlight, and he was beating him on the legs and hands. The other officer was ramming him with his knee. It looked like his body was jumping off the ground."

She stopped and screamed for them to stop beating the man.

"He was just begging, What do you want? What do you want?'" she says. "It was absolutely awful."

As she came closer, she recognized the beaten man's jacket. It was her dear friend Dave James on the ground.

"I screamed, You can't do that! You can't do that!'"

"What are you doing?" she screamed.

"Just taking another drug dealer off the street," she says one officer snapped back.

For their part, the officers at the scene deny that anyone called James a "drug dealer." During interviews as part of an internal investigation of the incident, they also deny that they continued to beat James after he was handcuffed.

Instead, officers describe Mattox as "hysterical" and "irrational." Police investigators sided with the officers, calling James' and Mattox's claims of brutality and racial profiling "unfounded."

A jury will hear James' civil case against the City of Phoenix later this month. It is unlikely to reach the same conclusion as police investigators.

As Mattox watched, James was soon heaved into the back of the cruiser.

The cruisers drove off.

Hunched in the back of the cruiser, James begged for the police to stop the car and loosen his handcuffs. He was close to passing out from the pain in his shoulder.

Before arriving at the police station, both cruisers stopped. James says that the officers in both cars got out and talked for several minutes. The police then drove the short distance to the station.

Officers admitted in the internal investigation to stopping and discussing the incident. Richard Lebel and Adam Vandenbosch said a supervisor "asked them to meet her briefly at the car wash at Seventh Avenue and Van Buren Street" so "they could give her some information regarding their use of force for her report."

Apparently, the officers believe car washes are better suited than police stations for discussing police reports.

At the police station, James asked to see a doctor. A nurse there said the only thing she could do was give him two Tylenol.

So James sat through the night in excruciating pain.

The next morning, James was formally charged with two counts of aggravated assault of a police officer.

County prosecutors later declined to pursue the charges against James, who had no prior criminal record.

Three years, seven surgeries and one nearly fatal infection later, David James' shoulder has not healed. He no longer can work as a tool and dye maker, his profession of almost 30 years. He is on permanent disability.

He still is in constant pain. He can't lie on the shoulder. He must take prescription pain pills. His shoulder is a maze of scars. His surgeon says his shoulder is the worst mess he's ever tried to rebuild.

He has $90,000 in medical bills.

Phoenix police argue that they're not responsible for those medical bills — or anything else they inflicted on James. They have the audacity to say they were just doing their job.

Here's why they are responsible for those bills:

They stopped James because they said they believed he was walking out of an alley, which is not a crime.

And James wasn't even walking out of the alley.

They attacked James because they said they believed he was swallowing drugs.

If they truly believed that, following his arrest, why didn't police request a blood or urine test from James, or monitor him to see if the phantom drugs passed through his system, both standard procedures?

Indeed, as James' attorney argues, weren't police actually negligent in not monitoring him if they believed he had swallowed drugs, considering the high probability of a deadly overdose?

Officers also claimed they saw James reach toward his waistband.

Police admit James had no weapon.

And even if police truly believed he was reaching for a gun, at what academy do officers learn to jump from their cruisers and run toward a person they believe is drawing a handgun?

Ginger Mattox believes the two officers simply let prejudice and adrenaline get the best of them.

"Their stories change; they don't make sense, and when they get caught in a lie, they try to hide behind some sort of immunity clause," Mattox says. "It's just a sick thing to watch."

To be fair, according to the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, the Phoenix Police Department under chief Harold Hurtt has made a concerted effort to eradicate racial profiling in the time since the James incident.

"The chief has made it clear he won't tolerate it," says Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP. "And I have good reason to believe him."

But the James incident did happen. And if the chief truly is dedicated to fighting racial profiling, he and his department must also be willing to apologize and accept punishment for past transgressions.

Instead, the department has fought James with two years of disingenuous legal maneuvering.

Which leaves it up to a judge and jury to make things as right as they can be for David James.

Hopefully, they will.

Because, simply put, Phoenix police crippled David James because he was black. Because, simply put, it was Phoenix police officers who committed the crime.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.