RACE RELATIONS

Guilty of ‘walking while black’?

 

cfrank@MiamiHerald.com

It was five in the afternoon, the end of Jimmy Michel’s work shift at Broward College. His sister was supposed to pick him up across the street. But as he was crossing Davie Road to get to the rendezvous point, Michel was hemmed in by a semi-circle of as many as five police cruisers from the Davie Police Department.

“Put your hands on your head!” ordered one, Officer Stephen Alston, who had drawn his service weapon and was pointing it at Michel.

Thus began an ordeal in which the 31-year-old sound technician was frisked, cuffed, subjected to a roadside lineup and, he says, finally scolded by police for not affording them the proper respect. They were looking for the man who had robbed a woman in the parking lot of the nearby Palm Trace Landings apartment complex.

Michel, a lifelong South Floridian who has no criminal record, says he was told repeatedly he “fit the description” of the robber. To Michel, that meant one thing: “I’m black.”

Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle says officers were operating with a more detailed description, pieced together from the victim and a CVS security guard who saw someone running from the crime scene. That description: black male, mid-20s, jeans, dark shirt, 5-6’ to 5-8, carrying a black backpack.

Michel says he is 6-3 not 5-6, wasn’t carrying a gun when he was stopped, didn’t have any of the stolen items, and was never a threat to anybody. He did have a beard, did carry a backpack (filled, he says, with empty lunch bowls, a tablet, a hard drive, a lamp and pens) and did have on jeans and a dark shirt, although the latter clearly stated he was from Broward College. He was uncuffed and freed after about 45 minutes, Michel says, when witnesses, (presumably the victim and the guard) were driven to the spot but could not ID him.

Afterward, he wrote up his story, thinking it would resonate with others who complain of being subjected to similar indignities. Calling it his “Affidavit of Truth,” he shared it with the Miami Herald under the heading “Walking While Black.” Here are excerpts:

Officer Alston grabbed my hands and began to kick my left leg while saying,” “Spread your feet!”

Now there were three (3) police officers immediately around me that I could see. One on my left, one behind me who I think was Officer Alston, and another on my right.

Officer Alston began frisking me. While frisking he asked, “What’s your name?”

I responded, “Jimmy Michel.”

I said, “I work at Broward College. You can see it on my shirt.”

I asked “What’s going on?’

An officer shouted, “There’s been a robbery!”

Officer Alston then said, “You fit the description!”

I said, “Black.”

The police cruisers’ lights flashed. Rubberneckers — including colleagues leaving work — had a ringside seat to Michel’s humiliation as they whizzed past.

Michel: “I said I’m across the street from my job. This is embarrassing.”

He says they told him again: “You fit the description!”

Michel says he asked the officers repeatedly to look in his book bag, that he could account for its contents. They would not.

His sister Jessica, an aspiring police officer eight years his junior, drove up. The officers told her to park the car and wait.

Michel: : My sister asked me, “What happened?” I said, “You won’t believe it. I fit the description.”

At some point, Michel was placed in handcuffs — “for officers’ safety,” according to the police incident report.

Michel: “I said, “Oh, my God, are you kidding me? I didn’t do it.”

My sister got out of her car and asked, “Why are you arresting him?”

Police officers — who would later explain that Michel was “detained” and never under arrest — told him then that they were waiting for a witness to be brought byand say whether he was or wasn’t the armed robber.

After a while, a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot where Michel was now being detained. The cruiser, apparently bearing a witness, parked. No one emerged. After three minutes, the cruiser drove away.

Michel: I said “Of course she’s not going to recognize me, because it’s not me. So let me go.”

About that time, a black man rode by on a bike. He was wearing a light gray shirt and tan pants.

Michel: Sgt. Davis ordered another officer, “Go get him!”

I turned around and asked, “Why am I still here? Your witness can’t ID me because I’m not the person. I know all black people look alike but your officers won’t check my book bag after I repeatedly asked him to verify that only my items are in there.”

A Sgt. Davis said: “You fit the description!”

I said, “Are you kidding me? What’s the description?”

Michel said Sgt Davis then told him the description: “ Black guy, black shirt, blue jeans with a beard.”

Ok, said Michel, then why did you just tell that officer to stop the cyclist? His clothing in no way matched the description of the armed robber.

Michel said Sgt. Davis responded: “ Uh, well. he has on a backpack. Clothes could be in there.”

About 10 minutes later, a second police cruiser drove into the parking lot, evidently carrying the second witness. The CVS guard had not seen the robbery, but had reported seeing a black man run past him and throw a clear Tupperware container to the ground. The parking lot ritual was repeated. The witness remained inside the police car. After a brief interval, the cruiser drove away.

It was apparent to Michel that neither of the witnesses had identified him. He began to complain that the cuffs were too tight and that his hands were getting “tingly”

Michel: Sgt. Davis or Officer Alston“ both touched the handcuffs and say, “No, they are all right.”

Michel sensed the officers were getting tired of his attitude.

Michel: A Lt. Fernandez said, “You need to respect us!”

“I said respect goes both ways. I’m the one in handcuffs.

Officer Alston asked, “Jimmy, what do you want us to do?”

I said, “Let me go. You got nothing.”

And finally, they did just that.

Epilogue

That night, Michel couldn’t sleep so he sat down at his computer and typed out his “Affidavit of Truth,” a 13-page document that described the encounter in excruciating detail. Two days later, he went to the Davie police station and presented it. He says the detective who took it stated, “We don’t need it.”

He was invited to file an internal affairs complaint if he wished.

Capt. Engle. who says internal affairs is looking into the matter, read Michel’s affidavit and believes the episode happened “much the way he said it did.”

But he added, “From what I read, even based on what he says, the officers were within their rights to do what they did.

“They responded to an armed robbery. Unfortunately this guy was in the area. He matched the general description of two people. I think the officers have an obligation to the community to try to see if that was him,” Engle said.

As to Michel’s pleas that cops look inside his backpack, Engle said there was no need. He could have tossed the gun and stolen goods (purse, cell phone credit cards and $7) at any point.

As for the significant difference between the height described by the victim and the much taller Michel (although he says he is 6-3, public records say 6-1), Engle said people being robbed at gunpoint often fixate on the barrel of the weapon, and may take little note of the robber’s height.

All of which is of little comfort to Michel.

“What was super upsetting to me — aside from begin put in handcuffs — is that they didn’t even have the courtesy to apologize for being wrong,” he said..

“If you’re wrong your wrong, You should be able to say. ‘Hey look, man, We’re sorry it wasn’t you.’.... But not even that.”

As of last week, police were still looking for the robber.

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