I’ve had the same headache since 2 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 4. My son has had the same nightmares every night since then as well. Most people will say, “Be lucky he wasn’t shot or killed,” but when you send your child to college, the last thing you expect to happen is for him to call you at 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday saying that a traffic stop turned into police officers drawing their guns.
Early Sunday morning, my son was heading back to his college campus in Petersburg, Va., after hanging out in Richmond, Va. He was driving, and his friend from college was the passenger.
Just a few blocks from approaching the gates of their university, they spotted the Chesterfield County, Va., police at what looked like checkpoints near an off-campus party location. According to my son, he approached a stop sign, stopped and proceeded through it. Shortly after, as he was approaching the university, cops pulled him over, saying that he had done a “roll stop” instead of a full stop (we’ll get back to this in a few).
And here’s where the story goes from being just a routine stop to every parent’s nightmare:
The cops then used the age-old tactic of, “Sir, we smell marijuana in your car,” and asked my son and his friend to exit the vehicle. Mind you, neither of them smokes. The only smells ever in my son’s car are those of his dirty gym clothes.
The Chesterfield County police officers (who were white) then approached my son and asked if he was carrying a weapon. My son informed them that he had his pocketknife in his pocket (a knife that is legal to carry and which I had given him because of the area where his school is located).
When my son went to pull up his shorts to show the officers the knife in his pocket, guns were drawn on him. Because I’ve had the “talk” with my son several times, he knew what to do if ever he was in any sort of contact with police. As the cops continued to search his car and found nothing, my son and his friend remained calm and actually talked about their history paper on democracy. The irony.
After the search was over and the guns were put away, one of the Chesterfield County police officers asked my son and his friend if they were OK with how the situation had been handled. And, of course, they replied, “Yes.” Because, of course, the officers were trying to intimidate them.
After they gave their reply, the officers laughed and sent them on their merry way, without a ticket for this alleged “roll-through” of a stop sign.
My son called me at 1:23 Sunday morning. I thought it was his usual check-in call, but he was hysterical, angry and scared. I had no idea what was going on because I couldn’t get him to calm down. He had remained calm in front of the police officers because I had told him to never let them see you sweat. But as soon as he was away from them and got me on the phone, there was no reason not to let out his anger and frustration.
As soon as he told me what had happened, my heart sank. And the anger rose. First with my son, because I had warned him about being out on a Saturday night in that area. As a young black man with a fairly decent car, you’re bait for cops. But then I became enraged because my son has done everything right in life and can’t even attend college without being profiled and ending up looking down the barrel of a police officer’s gun.
My son was so distraught, he couldn’t even tell me which police department had pulled him over. For reference, in the area of his university, there’s the Petersburg Police Department, the Colonial Heights Police Department, the Chesterfield County Police Department and the university’s own police department. I literally had to call each police department to figure out which was involved in the stop. And after I called Chesterfield County twice, the sergeant on duty finally said that its Police Department was involved.
Around 3 a.m. Sunday, I was informed by the sergeant on duty that its officers were equipped with bodycams and that he had seen the video, and if I wanted to have a copy, I should put in a Freedom of Information Act request. And so I did.
The following morning, Feb. 5., my FOIA request was denied by Karen Leonard, the department’s FOIA officer, who in an email wrote, “The Code of Virginia, §2.2-3706, Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), states that complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files or reports, witness statements and evidence relating to a criminal investigation or prosecution, other than criminal incident information, are excluded from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.”
When I asked what exactly was being investigated, since no citation or crime was committed, Leonard replied, “Criminal investigations do not always result in charges or arrests. I have referred you to the investigator, Officer Murphy, for any information he can share.”
So, of course, I emailed Officer Murphy of the Chesterfield County Police Department, and he wanted to know what information my son had shared with me. Yeah, no. Why would I give that information?
He then informed me, “Due to the fact that he is an adult, I am not allowed to discuss anything that he has not informed you of previously. That is why I was asking you to please share with me what your son has already told you so I know what I can and cannot discuss with you.”
When I asked for an authorization form my son could sign, to release any information about the stop to me, Murphy seemingly went silent.
Regardless, before all of the interaction with Murphy, on the advice of an attorney, I had already filed a complaint with the Chesterfield County cops’ internal-affairs department.
There have been other complaints from students about the actions of the police officers in the area when it comes to harassment. But unlike my son and his friend and me, many are afraid to speak out. But if you choose to be silent, you’re choosing to keep others in harm’s way and not changing the flawed law enforcement system.
So, here I am now, with the same headache from Sunday. Still trying to help my son process the fact that he’s lucky he wasn’t shot or killed. Still trying to figure out the next steps. Still trying to figure out why guns were drawn. Still trying to figure out why college students at an HBCU aren’t even safe from the cops who should be protecting them, not profiling them.