My hands were shaking, my jaw tightened and I had to control myself from screaming at the computer as I watched the terrifying 32 minute 49 second police video of a Black teenager, his high school’s homecoming king, being pulled over and handcuffed, his car searched by a K-9 dog and his car taken apart in a search for contraband by Louisville, Ky. Metro Police.
All for allegedly making an illegal wide turn, a charge that was later dismissed in court. No contraband was found. And the most frightening thing was that it was all pretty routine for police and for African Americans, young or old. It’s known by the euphemism of being stopped for driving while black and the practice just adds fuel to the growing anger and suspicion of the police.
The Aug. 9, 2019, video involved Tae-Ahn Lea, 18, who had several college scholarship offers and no prior traffic tickets, let alone arrests. The video went viral, adding to the tensions between police and the African American community. Those tensions heightened seven months later, when, on March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician, was fatally shot in a botched raid at her apartment by Louisville Metro Police Department officers.
I have been stopped for speeding and was given a polite warning by an officer. Lea, who looked like the innocent young man he was, was stopped for allegedly making a wrong turn and he was treated as a suspected, violent criminal, because that was how police were trained to react to young Blacks in high crime areas and elsewhere.
Lea was scared and confused. He politely asked the officer who approached his car why he was stopped and was told he made too wide a turn. He showed the officer his license and insurance card when the officer told Lea to get out of the car and unplug his phone so it didn’t fall. He asked why he had to get out and the officer did not explain as he escorted Lea to a patrol car.
Three back-up patrol cars were called to the scene as Lea was brought to one of the police cars and handcuffed. The officer said the handcuffs were to keep Lea from fighting or running away. Lea said he would do neither.
Police asked Lea three times if he had drugs or weapons and he answered each time that he did not. While handcuffed Lea was obviously agitated and was rocking back and forth and clenching his fists behind him, when the officer asked why he had an attitude and what had the police ever done to him. The officer seemed to be clueless about the fear his unwarranted actions had brought about in the young man.
Lea waited handcuffed outside of his car for more than a half hour, frightened, angry and humiliated. A K-9 dog sniffed around the outside and interior of the car while his mother, a juvenile counselor, arrived and demanded answers from the all-white police unit. The officer was growing increasingly annoyed and verbally combative with the woman as he explained that the unit had a difficult job and was doing its best to stop violent crime in the area and that many traffic stops resulted in confiscation of weapons,drugs and arrests. The mother asked what evidence they had to believe her son was violent or had a weapon or drugs. She asked several times as the officer continued to respond that his assignment was to stop violent crime.
I saw a young man, the furthest thing from a gang banger, who had gone to buy a Slurpee and was returning home and was on the phone with his mother when he saw the flashing lights and heard the tell-tale siren. I saw a young man who was scared out of his wits, who was treated as a potentially violent criminal though he had done nothing to prompt such accusations and who feared what would happen to him.
And I saw police who believed they were simply doing their jobs and doing what they were trained to do. They were with Louisville’s anti-crime unit and commonly pulled over motorists for minor traffic offenses in order to find potential violent suspects.
The officer talked to Lea as if he was convinced that the youth was hiding something. He didn’t seem to understand that Lea could have been simply upset that he had been stopped and didn’t know why.
The officer was frustrated that neither Lea or his mother understood why he pulled the youth over and why it was an important practice to stem violent crime.
The youth and his mother saw he was being unfairly treated like a criminal because he was young and black. And both sides left, frustrated and angry at each other.
And there is so much work to do on the side of the police not only in Louisville, Ky., but throughout the country so they do their work fairly without violating the rights of innocent people.