Comment: Do special police units keep peace or disturb it?

Complaints are rising against cops jumping out of vehicles, stopping people and frisking them without cause.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As soon as the car pulls up and officers start jumping out — sometimes in plain clothes, always in body armor — the guys on the street know what to do.

“They all pull up their shirts,” said Ryan Morgan. “They know they want to see their waistbands.”

Morgan is 31 and has spent nearly half his life being stopped and searched by specialized police units rolling through his Southwest D.C. neighborhood.

The squads operate in a lot of American cities. They’re often welcomed by residents who’ve been under siege in a high-crime neighborhood, and are celebrated by police chiefs and mayors eager to improve crime numbers, and to look swift and decisive.

They stop. Frisk. Take guns. And people want the guns gone. So despite the harm they can cause, the aggressive units often stay. But over the weekend, America saw what can go wrong when the laserlike focus of aggressive policing is set on a neighborhood.

In Memphis, it was Scorpion, or the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. And the nation gasped in horror after police released a video of the traffic stop by the Scorpion unit that ended in 29-year-old Tyre Nichols’s death and showcased crime suppression squad policing at its most lethal. It has since been shut down.

In Washington, D.C., one of these tactical units deployed to a high-crime area in 2017 was called Powershift, and they had wicked T-shirts made with a stylized cross and the phrase Morgan and his friends have heard so many times: “Let me see that waistband.” It also had the letters “Jo” to stand for “jump out.”

In the land of Black Lives Matter Plaza, some folks still have a hard time believing these squads are still operating in D.C., said Patrice Sulton, a civil rights attorney and founder and executive director of DC Justice Lab, a nonprofit that advocates for “community-rooted” public safety revisions.

But “they’re out there,” said Sulton, who hears from scores of Black D.C. residents who have outrageous stories of being stopped and frisked.

The D.C. police have yet to answer my questions. Yet in October, Police Chief Robert J. Contee III placed seven officers from a specialized unit that focuses on violent crime on administrative leave or desk duty, after investigations showed they took guns from people without making arrests.

Advocates say that stop-and-frisk policing by specialized units is rampant in D.C. neighborhoods and they want city leaders to ban them through legislation. That tactics were greatly restricted in New York when stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin.

“This case is about the tension between liberty and public safety in the use of a proactive policing tool called ‘stop and frisk,’” Scheindlin wrote in her opinion, noting that the stops may be effective in policing, but take a large toll on humans.

“While it is true that any one stop is a limited intrusion in duration and deprivation of liberty, each stop is also a demeaning and humiliating experience,” she wrote. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. Those who are routinely subjected to stops are overwhelmingly people of color, and they are justifiably troubled to be singled out when many of them have done nothing to attract the unwanted attention.”

The Stop Police Terror Project D.C. is calling for such a ban. The group sued D.C. police to get data on their stops and the numbers are now regularly published thanks to them.

The numbers show that 72.83 percent of the people stopped by police since March 2018 — that’s 245, 701 stops — were Black, in a city that’s 45.8 percent Black.

“It’s the jump-out cars you have to watch out for,” a young boy told Seema Sadanandan in 2013, when she just joined the ACLU and was talking to kids at the Kenilworth Housing Development in Washington.

“He was referring to the [D.C. police] vice squad’s roving, unmarked cars, ubiquitous in most of the District’s Black neighborhoods, from which officers jump out and aggressively “stop and frisk” people,” she wrote in The Washington Post.

Morgan said he’s been stopped about 50 times.

“I’ll never forget the first time, when I was 16. I was just walking out of my house and they jumped out the car and pulled me, pushed me up to my gate, started going through all my pockets,” Morgan said. “I yelled: ‘Dad, help! Dad, help me!’”

Police found nothing on him then, or ever, he said.

But Morgan, who owns his own production company and studied film in college, began filming the encounters. He now has a YouTube channel of jump outs, including his most recent one, when police ran a drug dog through his car after they pulled up to him. He was just waiting for someone, watching videos on his phone.

“It was a nice car, a 2017,” he said. “They said my windows were too dark. And they ran that dog through it, he scratched it all up.”

There was no arrest, no ticket for a tinted window. He just looked “suspicious” they told him.

“This is in my neighborhood,” he said. “In front of my family’s home.”

“Now? I don’t even want to be outside anymore,” Morgan said. “After seeing that video in Memphis? I don’t feel safe being anywhere outside my home now.”

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.

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