Marc Lamont Hill: Suit spoke for all victims of unjust police stops

Officer Richard DeCoatsworth joined first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden at a presidential address in 2009.
Officer Richard DeCoatsworth joined first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden at a presidential address in 2009.
Posted: March 15, 2011

ON JUNE 12, 2010, while dropping a friend off at his house in Logan, I was pulled over by two uniformed Philadelphia police officers.

Although the stop made no sense to me - I had literally done nothing but let a friend out of the car and proceeded to the next stop sign - I used survival tactics that many black people are trained to use when pulled over by a police officer.

As the patrolmen approached me with their hands gripping their guns, their anxiety was contagious. Still, I remembered to keep both hands on the steering wheel, answer all questions and make no sudden movements.

Most important, I silently prayed that I would make it home that night alive. After all, for blacks, our behavior does not merely determine whether we get a ticket or a verbal warning. It determines whether we live or die.

Despite my adherence to the unofficial rules of traffic stops, Officer Richard DeCoatsworth - the Latino cop hailed as a hero after he was shot in the face in 2007 while on duty and who sat next to first lady Michelle Obama during a presidential address - refused to let up. Without warning, he reached into the car and began feeling my left and right pockets, as I recounted in a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed last October.

He asked if I had a weapons permit, and I explained that I wasn't carrying a weapon. He then placed his hand back on his gun and ordered me to "shut up and answer the question."

Things only got worse from there.

By the end of the stop, I had been forced out of my car and subjected to a search of my body without probable cause and a search of every part of my BMW except for the trunk. I was subjected to unnecessary physical force, threats of being put in jail and a series of condescending questions like, "How can you afford this car?" and "Why are you on this side of Broad Street?"

In fact, it wasn't until the policeman discovered that I was a college professor and media pundit that he changed his tune, allowing me to go home without a citation and ordering me, without any sense of irony, to "have a good night."

The reason that I was stopped, you ask? "Illegal discharge of a passenger."

Right.

Within a week of my ordeal with the police, I filed a complaint with Internal Affairs and filed the lawsuit in federal court, which the city quickly settled. Although I fully expected a range of responses to the suit - this is Philly, after all - I was genuinely surprised by what I heard.

Cynical talking heads said that this was nothing but a publicity stunt, a plea for public attention. This was a curious claim to me, since I have turned down every local and national interview request on the topic not only to avoid this kind of accusation but also to ensure that this matter was handled seriously in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion. I only want to hold the police accountable for their actions.

Local radio personalities point to my support for Mumia Abu-Jamal as evidence that I hate police. Do I think Abu-Jamal received an unfair trial? Yes. Do I dislike the police? No. Hell, after everything he did to me that night, I don't even dislike DeCoatsworth.

A better question might be why he seemed to hate me so much.

So why did I sue the police?

This is bigger than me and Officer DeCoatsworth. I did it for the thousands of black men in Philadelphia and other cities around the country who are victims of repressive (and illegal) law-enforcement policies like Mayor Nutter's "Stop and Frisk" program, which trades our constitutional rights for the illusion of public (read: white) safety.

I did it for the voiceless black citizens whose truthful claims of police misconduct - by officers of all races - go unnoticed and unaddressed because they don't have fancy degrees or media access. Instead, they have to accept the banality of evil, the normalcy of a world in which black bodies automatically constitute reasonable suspicion and warrant the use of lethal force.

I did it to help spark a different conversation about the relationships between police and the communities they patrol. While it is important to think about issues like "driving while black," we must also address the more fundamental issue of "patrolling while racist."

While it is easy to label Islamist radicals as "terrorists," we must also be willing to use the "T-word" when describing the feeling that poor black and brown people get whenever those blue lights flash behind them, even if they didn't commit a crime.

I did it for the dozens of police officers, some of them very high ranking, who have sent me e-mails and stopped me on the street to thank me for challenging conduct that makes their attempts at honest law enforcement more difficult.

Since the incident, I've thought about DeCoatsworth. I've wondered if he regretted that night, wishing he could take back his actions now that he has been afforded the luxury of time and reflection. I've wondered whether his tragic shooting has put him in a permanent state of trauma, causing him to find danger where there is none. I've wondered if he was a good cop at heart, who became cynical and overly aggressive after spending a few short years trying to navigate a broken system. I've even hesitantly wondered if we could sit down and discuss our differences, allowing us to move in a new direction of growth and healing.

I got the answer to my last question a few weeks ago, as I bumped into Officer DeCoatsworth at a gas station at 22nd and Walnut streets. I was sitting in my car as he walked by in plain clothes, looking much smaller and less confident without his uniform and handgun. He stopped dead in front of my car and glared at me. I made eye contact and nodded, in an effort to break the tension and offer a nonverbal olive branch. He turned his head and walked a few feet away from me. He then stopped, turned back toward me and spit in my direction. He shot me a look of cold rage that sent me back to that chilly night last summer.

So much for growth and healing.

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