The Washington Post told the world that I had been arrested. The newspaper that I loved published a story about my life-changing encounter with racist and abusive law enforcement. Other media covered the story as well. Since I was a government spokesman, the arrest was news. The local press, my former colleagues, many of them friends of mine, knew me well and commonly referred to me as the “jail spokesman.” To them, my arrest sculpted a strange and twisted contradiction. The mouthpiece of the prison system was swallowed and chewed up by it.
Actually, it felt worse than that. It felt like I was a zookeeper grooming a compliant lion and then suddenly it attacked me, sinking its teeth deep into my gut. Then it flung me to the ground and mauled my face.
The headline of The Post story only partially captured the ugly incident, omitting that I was actually thrown into jail, not an uncommon fate for someone charged with serious traffic offenses. Nevertheless, on the day after my arrest, this is what I woke up to in my morning newspaper, the same wonderful paper where I was once a respected colleague:
Jail Spokesman Charged
The spokesman for the D.C. Department of Corrections was arrested yesterday and charged with numerous traffic offenses after police pursued his car for six blocks in Northeast Washington, D.C. police said.
Edward D. Sargent, 29, of 2215 Bunker Hill Rd. NE was pursued down 13th Street NE at about 9:45 a.m. after a 5th District police officer saw that Sargent’s black Porsche was missing a front license plate, said police spokesman Sgt. J.C. Gentile.
Sargent, whose car was stopped in the 1300 block of Webster Street NE, was charged with reckless driving, driving 30 mph over the speed limit, running two red lights, failing to yield the right of way to pedestrians and failing to display a front license tag, Gentile said.
Sargent also was charged with possession of a radar detection device.
Police said that Sargent could be fined up to $700 if found guilty of all charges.
Sargent said last night that he has always obeyed the laws of the District of Columbia and asserted his innocence.
He said he has asked for an investigation of the matter and will talk to a lawyer.
Sargent also disputed the police enumeration of the charges against him.
He said that charges of running red lights, failing to yield and lacking a license plate did not appear on court papers.
He said he was released on personal recognizance pending an appearance in D.C. Superior Court Oct. 5.
Note: The photo above did not appear with the story.
The unreported rumor was that drugs were involved somehow. That’s typical, isn’t it, when a cop stops a black man in an “expensive” car? The rumor is almost always there, between the lines, when a brother behind the steering wheel of an exotic vehicle gets arrested. Why would the police arrest him, if he hadn’t committed a crime? He must’ve been doing something wrong. Probably was dealing drugs. Yep, that’s probably how he could he afford to buy that car.
(For the record, for all those inquiring minds out there who may be tempted to rush to judgment, let me allay your suspicions. I never in my life sold drugs, not even an aspirin.
I was making a handsome government salary, which was about 30 percent higher than what I had made as a Post reporter. I was also grossing a couple thousand monthly from rental real estate property. My Porsche 924S, the first brand new car I had ever purchased, was the entry-level model. My monthly lease payments were a quarter of my real estate earnings. So, at age 29, I was an educated, purpose-driven black man, working hard for his money and living within his means.)
The reckless driving charge meant that the cops accused me of speeding a whopping 40 miles above the posted 25-mile-per-hour limit in a quaint, quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. The charge threatened to land me in jail for 90 days and have my driver’s license revoked.
Here’s what in fact happened:
I was in a quiet, tree-line majority black neighborhood that I knew very well. I had lived there since I was in fourth grade. It was a lovely summer September morning as drove down Michigan Avenue. I passed the National Cathedral of the Basilica, the majestic flower of the Catholic University of America and headed north towards the Maryland state line.
Half way between the shrine and the state line, I stopped at a red light and then turned left on 13th Street, NE towards my father’s house. Listening to smooth jazz on the radio, I was driving the speed limit as I turned right on Shepherd Street, just before my dad’s house. I cruised by a house that was listed for sale. The new acquisition would make a good rental property. It would be my third real estate investment. My father, Ernest Edward Sargent, approved of my plan to invest in rental property. He gave good financial advice. He was a certified public accountant, entrepreneur, investor and self-made millionaire. He had retired from the military at the rank of “Master Sergeant Sargent” and built wealth by running a successful dry cleaning business and making smart investments. He died in 2001 from severe complications involving a heart attack and a stroke.
My immediate plan was to take a cursory, drive by view of the house that was on sale and then I would go see my ailing dad and briefly discuss the details of my potential acquisition. I was happy to have his help as I followed his footsteps.
I pulled up to the front of the potential investment. After I finished taking a cursory, street curb survey, I turned right into an alley near the end of the block and turned right once more into another alley, which took me to the rear of the house. I stopped to view the backyard and take some notes on my initial impressions of the property.
My survey of the house was bluntly interrupted by Officer John Alter. He drove his squad car right in front of my Porsche and blocked my path.
He claimed that he saw me speeding and came after me. He said that after I turned on Shepherd Street he lost track of me.
There was no way the lying-ass cop could have been chasing me while I casually conducted my business. He had apparently been tailing me at a distance, like George Zimmerman stalking Trayvon Martin. His allegation that I was fleeing him at a high rate of speed was so baseless that it could only have been believed by someone brainwashed to blindly assume that cops never lie. By this measure, there are millions upon millions, upon and millions of brainwashed Americans.
Alter’s lies eventually landed me in court. In preparation for my trial, my attorney advised me to line up some exceptional character witnesses to speak on my behalf. As I mentioned earlier, Ben Bradlee was not just a legendary newsman, he was the consummate friend. I knew he would make a great character witness, so a couple of months before my trial I went to The Post to ask him in person.
It’s easy to feel comfortable around a real gentleman, a man who is comfortable with who he is—his accomplishments as well as his foibles. Ben was such a man. When I met him in his office to ask him to be a character witness for me, the criminal defendant, I guess it took a lot of nerve on my part, because my relationship with Ben was not what one would call very close. I had been one of dozens of reporters under his executive command, one of the fortunate ones who had face-to-face encounters with him, discussed important news stories, and gone to lunch or breakfast with him from time to time. But, all that was in the past. I had moved on from corporate journalism, deciding to march to the pop and snare of my own drummer. Yet, Ben made me feel warmly welcomed upon my return visit.
He remained a father figure to me. I had always admired his decisiveness, his in-your-face-attitude, and his famously fiery and unfiltered opinions. His impressive executive office, which perched in a far corner of the newsroom, was very spacious, with a glass wall that, after sunset, sparkled with the bright and colorful lights of the lively metropolis that surrounded The Washington Post’s iconic 15th Street building, which has since been demolished. Ben and I sat and chatted for a bit. It had been about a year and a half since I had left The Post to serve as a government spokesman.
After brief niceties, our conversation transcended friendly chit-chat and became more of a heart-to-heart, man-to-man rap session. He wanted me to know that he understood my pain and anger over being falsely accused. He shared with me a private story that assured me that he could relate to my frustration with the cops. His cop story was one he seldom, if ever, shared with anyone, he said. He told me that he was certain his encounter would have ended tragically had he been a black man.
Trying to remember things that were once so vivid and current, he looked up towards the ceiling of his office, as if peering into a time machine, and then he recalled: “This cop pulled me over once … in Massachusetts, I believe it was. At any rate, the officer said I was swerving. I had had a few drinks, yes, but I was not drunk. I wasn’t even impaired. But the turkey was giving me a hard time of it. I was sitting in my car on the side of the highway listening to him talking and talking to me about driving properly and I just got irritated with the cop. I remember getting very angry and I started verbally harassing him. I just wanted him to shut up and let me go about my business. I couldn’t stand listening to him anymore.
“Jeez! I can’t believe I went off on the guy. I said, ‘You son of a bitch, just f–kin’ shut up and give me back my driver’s license so I can be on my f–kin’ way!’”
Ben paused and looked at me squarely. “If I had been a black guy, I’d be dead. He would have smashed my head open. He was a cop for Christ’s sake! He wouldn’t have let a black man talk to him like that. I was a little shocked that he let me talk to him that way.”
Ben also had a more public run-in with a police officer when he was much younger. He wrote about it in his 1995 autobiography, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. This police encounter occurred in 1936 on the Fourth of July while he was a student at Harvard University and working as a camp counselor during summer break. One evening after dinner, he and some of his football fanatic buddies got drunk on rye whiskey, he wrote, and “eventually we started tackling people, and inevitably one person we tackled was a state trooper who was totally unamused.”
“Yeah, I tell ya, that was a crazy night,” Ben said, retelling the story in 2008 when I visited him while doing research for this book. “My buddies got me drunk after we had gone to the state fair. I think it was the first time in my life I ever got really, really drunk. I was full of booze. I tackled the cop myself. He got mad at me, but he didn’t hit me. He just got back up, then gently helped me to my feet, and then he marched me and my drunk buddies to the stationhouse and put us in the clink and left us there until we sobered up. None of the cops there did anything to us, really; they just let us sleep off the whiskey and leave peaceably the following morning. If we had been a bunch of black guys, I am sure things would have gone a lot differently.”
Ben was no pompous, ivory tower icon. He was a man who had seen the best and the worst in people and he did not get presumptuous when he heard about somebody having trouble with the law. He told me that he understood that good men sometimes have bad days with lawmen, and that cops often treat black men differently than white men. Ben could handle the truth. “Damnit, some cops are as two-faced as politicians!” he said.
How many black men in prison would not be there is they had had someone in a position of power—someone like Ben Bradlee—to go to war with them inside the courtrooms of America? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand? Or more?
Talking with Ben prior to my trial was very refreshing. The upshot of my visit with him was that he agreed to be a character witness for me.
Wrapping up our invigorating talk, he said, “Eddie, I’m still your friend. You’re a good man. You’re one of the good guys. I know that and everyone in this newsroom knows that. And if anyone says anything different about you, you send ‘em to me. That’s what you can do, and I’ll set ‘em straight. I’ll tell ‘em to go to hell! Yeah, send ‘em to me, ya hear me? … I’ve always wanted to see good things happen for you. So, I’d be glad to do whatever I can to help you get out of this jam. And the sooner the better—for you. Because I know this thing with the police must be eating at you pretty bad, huh?”
“You can say that again.”
“I understand. It would be eating at me too, if the cops said I did what they said you did … So, what’s next? When exactly will the trial be held, and in which courthouse?”
“It’s probably going to be in December, Superior Court. The date hasn’t been set, yet.”
“OK, call me later and give me all the details when you get them. Better yet, leave the information with my secretary, Carol, you remember her, right?”
I nodded, yes. Carol Leggett was very nice, precise and charming. Of course, I remembered her.
“Good, call her and give her all the details. She’ll put it in my calendar and make sure I get there on time. OK?”
“Yes. Thanks, Ben. I definitely appreciate your help. Thank you very much.”
“Don’t worry about a thing. Hey, you gotta lawyer, yet?”
“Is he any good?”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. Have him get in touch with me well before the trial. I’d like to talk to him myself.”
As he walked me to the door, he paused, then he shook my hand and patted me on my shoulder and said with a big smile, “I’ll be there for you, buddy. Don’t worry. I’m sure everything is going to work out just fine.”
I walked out of Ben’s office once again more sure-footed than when I walked in. I felt like a soldier after being told that his old commanding officer was going to join him in battle, fighting the enemy, right by his side.
A Good Attorney, Indeed
My attorney, Leroy Nesbitt, was not just good. He was one of the very, very best. An artful 53-year-old criminal defender in private practice when I hired him, Nesbitt was a master at fighting racists cops in courts of law. He was a slender black man, always impeccably dressed with nicely polished shoes. At 6-foot-1, I stood a few inches taller than he, but somehow his regal presence made him seem 10-feet-tall.
Nesbitt was well known in legal circles for his flawless criminal trial cross examinations. He was a surgeon of the law. His chief instruments were his precise oral scalpel and his engaging, tough but gentle—even humble at times—courtroom demeanor.
He was an elite attorney who had been strongly recommended to me by a legal practitioner who also had a stellar reputation, Judge Emmett Sullivan. Now a highly regarded federal jurist, Sullivan was then my next door neighbor. I had a cordial relationship with him, his wife and children.
A few days after my arrest, I knocked on Judge Sullivan’s front door and sheepishly asked him, “Can you refer me to any good lawyers? I need someone to represent me in a criminal trial, a traffic matter.”
Already familiar with my well-publicized situation, he smiled at me reassuringly and gave me just one name: “Leroy Nesbitt. He’s exceptional. Call him tomorrow morning, early. He likes to get an early start.”
I called attorney Nesbitt the very next morning, bright and early. By the end of the day, I had hired him to serve as my defense counsel.
Nesbitt developed a defense strategy for my case that focused on the concocted charges that the racially-motivated Alter filed against me.
He would ultimately tell the trial judge, Frederick Weisberg that “The defense in this case is fabrication… (and) the police’s motive for fabricating the charges,” In response to a probing question the asked, Nesbitt calmly confirmed that the case involved “overtly racial issues.”
According to Nesbitt’s legal analysis, the case against me would be best defended by pitting me against the police, head to head. The trial would become a courtroom battle to determine who was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and who was telling nothing but nonsensical lies, twisted lies and damned lies. It would be a head-on collision at the intersection of conflicting testimony, all played out in front of the six members of the jury, two alternates, and the judge.
The legal elements in the case would be injected into a swirling verbal vortex. The case would not be determined by any particular piece of evidence. In fact, there would be no physical evidence whatsoever—no gunshot wounds, scarred flesh or broken bones, no scintillating video footage, no police radar data, no tire skid marks on the road, no eyewitnesses and no prior arrest record. (My record was clean because the court considered my previous arrests unsubstantial.) Thus, the prosecution had nothing to present to the jury to prove its case against me—except the imaginative story Officer Alter and his cop cronies had grabbed out of thin air and stapled to circumstantial inferences.
Who would the jury believe? Me or the cops? This was going to be a tough challenge. It was Nesbitt’s mission to help me prove to the jurors that it was I who they should believe me, someone they did not know, rather than the cop, who society has been conditioned to unconditionally trust, disbelieving that many cops are driven by racial bias, and simply wear the mask of Officer Friendly.
It was essential to have reputable character witnesses who knew me well to come before the jurors and tell them about my solid reputation as a law-abiding member of the community and a respectable professional all around town. Nesbitt surmised that testimony from favorable character witnesses would show the jurors that I possessed “an excellent reputation for being a peaceful and orderly person—(a reputation) totally inconsistent” with the false charges filed against me by the police.
My Star Witness
When it was time for Ben Bradlee, the world renown, legendary executive editor of the Washington Post, to testify, my distinguished 66-year-old friend stood up straight as the spear of a Mandinka warrior. He then stepped briskly across the well of the court, raised his right stand and swore to tell the truth.
Responding to attorney Nesbitt’s soft questioning, the gravel-voiced Ben Bradlee gave the following sworn testimony.
Attorney Nesbitt: Sir … would you state for the ladies and gentlemen of the jury your full name and present occupational profession?
Mr. Bradlee: My name is Benjamin C. Bradlee. I am the executive editor of the Washington Post.
Attorney Nesbitt: Mr. Bradlee, do you know the gentleman seated over to my right?
Mr. Bradlee: I do.
Attorney Nesbitt: And how long have you known him?
Mr. Bradlee: I’ve known him since he came to work for the Washington Post. Don’t hold me to the dates. Five or six years ago. And I have known him ever since.
Attorney Nesbitt: Do you know people who know him?
Mr. Bradlee: I know his colleagues at the Washington Post who know him.
Attorney Nesbitt: Have you had the occasion to talk to them about him?
Mr. Bradlee: I have.
Attorney Nesbitt: Do you know what his reputation is in the community for truth and veracity?
Mr. Bradlee: His reputation is first class.
Attorney Nesbitt: I have no further questions.
The Prosecutor, Sonya Steele: No questions, Your Honor.
With humility and gratitude, I will always remember Ben’s taking time to step out of his large and very involved life to come to court on my behalf. The celebrity boss of the powerful Washington Post newsroom appearing in the small municipal courtroom to save the day for me was like superman swooping down from the Daily Planet to rescue a young Jimmy Olsen strapped to the old conveyor belt at the sawmill. The prosecutor dared not try to come up with any kryptonite verbiage to diminish Ben’s riveting, stronger-than-steel courtroom presence. She was wise to not meddle with Ben’s straight-to-the-point testimony.
Nesbitt’s strategy was impactful. If Benjamin C. Bradlee, known for his veracity and integrity, says he considered me a “first-class” citizen, what else could possibly need to be said? (I share more details about my relationship and interaction with Ben in The War in America, Volume 2: Abuse Black Men at Your Own Risk: A Warning to Racist and Abusive Police and Politicians.)
Still, to deepen the evidence of my credibility and law-abiding nature, Nesbitt presented before the jury seven additional high quality character witnesses—comprising a diverse array of outstanding people who also knew me. They were: friend and Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, a witty journalist with an ebullient personality, who, hailing from Louisiana, never lost his charm or Southern drawl; my pastor, the eloquent Rev. Willie B. Allen, who had known me since kindergarten and who baptized me one Friday evening in the solemn sunken pool behind the choir stand at Upper Room Baptist Church, located in far-Northeast Washington, across the Anacostia River; D.C. Councilmember Harry T. Thomas, Sr., whom I had known just about all of my life; the always optimistic Brenda Stewart, a smart and family friend, who worked as a Superior Court deputy clerk on the staff of then-DC judge and future U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Alex Sander, a writer and substitute teacher, whom I had befriended while I was a Post reporter; the esteemed Roy Fisher, the former dean of the School of Journalism at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia; and last but not at all least, Inspector Nelson Grillo, the director of the Metropolitan Police Department Morals Division, whom I met while working the police beat as a reporter and who told the court that he and his closest colleagues held me “in high regards.”
An Open-Minded Jury
My character witnesses’ back-to-back testimonies affirmed my good reputation and caused the jury to doubt the veracity of the cops’ allegations. I am sure they could not imagine me committing the irresponsible acts of speeding and leading the police on a high-speed chase. My clean arrest record added potency to the character witness testimony.
My accusers, the two white cops who testified against me, John Alter and his pal Joshua Ederheimer, not only lacked credibility, they also revealed themselves to be bumbling idiots as they stumbled over their lies in open court. For instance, consider the following remarks that Alter stated from the witness stand when he tried to tell the court the direction I was supposedly travelling when he first spotted me. Pitifully, the corrupt cop told the court that I was driving in two directions at the same time. The court transcript recorded what he said:
Officer Alter: I saw a black Porsche heading west towards the D.C. line … [T]he Porsche was heading east towards the D.C. line.
The prosecutor gently tossed simple questions to the disheveled and nervous cop. Still, he fell apart like a like a white soaking wet paper bag. He rushed through his story, clearly trying to hurriedly recite a poorly rehearsed script. At one point he sounded so nervous the judge ordered him to “take a breath” between his sentences to calm himself.
Judge Weisberg: You have to slow down.
Officer Alter: I’m sorry
Judge Weisberg: After she (Prosecutor Steele) asks you a question, why don’t you take a breath before you answer.
Officer Alter: OK.
After the shaky, hyperventilating and sweaty cop was done, I, dressed in my best dark suit, took the stand and handled the prosecutor’s now-unfriendly questioning with the steadiness of someone who had not rehearsed and was not trying to recite some made-up story. The jury, comprised of males and females, blacks and whites, ranging in age from young adult to elderly retiree, listened intently and dispassionately. Judging by the comfortable direct eye contact many of the jurors made with me, I felt they were open-minded, which was all I could ask for.
The trial lasted two days. That was plenty of time for me to rehash every detail of my arrest and rebut every false statement the police officers made. Attorney Nesbitt methodical stepped me through each moment of my close encounter with Alter, Ederheimer and the other cops who participated in arresting me.
Now, I want you, the reader, to come into the small courtroom, which from back to front is about the length of a lane in a bowling alley. Horizontally, it is about three lanes across. Please have a seat in the back row of pews. You have a bird’s eye view of the proceeding. Watch and listen.
You see me at the front of the court in the witness stand to your right. The judge is in his tower on my immediate right. The jury is seated about three yards to my left. In front of me, the prosecutor’s table is to my left and the defense table on my right. A US Marshall is stationed three yards behind my left shoulder.
Attorney Nesbitt stands directly in front of me. He leads my thoughts back to the scene where I was arrested. He teases out my testimony, slowly taking me through what happened that day. As he asks me questions, I look at him and then when I answer, I look at the jurors.
The facts of the arrest graphically come to my mind like scenes from a nightmare.
The image of Alter’s squad car No. 144 materializes as if a 3-D movie is playing in well of the court for everyone to see. You see the movie, too. There I am driving out of the alley after I finished viewing the back of the house. Officer Alter cuts off the path of my Porsche. He orders me to turn off the car’s engine. He throws his vehicle into park and hurries out of it with his gun drawn. He walks towards the driver’s side of my car, where I remain seated in my car. Standing inches from me, he points his gun right between my eyes.
I am leery of what he might do next. I raise both of my empty hands very slowly so he can see that I have no weapon.
He seems anxious and agitated. He’s sweating and his eyes are jumping around in their sockets. I try to keep him calm so his hyper-aggression will not endanger me. He looks so scared I am sure he’ll shoot me if I do the slightest thing to justify his anxiety. I remain silent. So does he.
It makes no sense that he’s standing there trembling while he points his gun at me, and mum, like he does not know what to say. It seems that he is trying to figure out what to do next. It seems like this is the first time he has pointed his gun at someone’s face.
I try to help him. Yes, help him. I try to manage him. People say an employee should manage their boss. I am about to try to manage this cop. This may sound arrogant. I am not arrogant. I am experienced. I have had a gun pointed in my face before—once by an armed robber and once by two cops. So, I am not nervous. I look into his eyes and I sense that he is soft and unsure of himself—in other words weak minded. He appears to be about five-foot seven and chubby.
Maintaining a slow and steady pace so he won’t feel anxious, I tell him: “Officer, you see my hands, right? I don’t have a weapon, so please lower your gun.”
I look him dead in the eye. I fully expect him to see the logic in what I just said. He doesn’t even blink. I squint my eyes and start to frown, but then I remember Cop Lessons 101, 102 and 103. So, I keep my face expressionless, avert my eyes so I won’t be looking at him and I stay cool.
I turn my head towards the front of my car and start shaking my head in disbelief. “Officer, please lower your gun,” I repeat. He remains motionless. At least he could say something.
I assess the situation. I’m in an alley. There is no one here except me and this young, white, silly-looking cop with his gun pointed in my face. I have no idea what his problem is. Maybe he thinks I just killed someone and the killer looks like me.
I’m getting nervous, but I am trying to keep myself from becoming as nervous and afraid as he obviously is.
More moments pass. Looking like he’s posing for a picture, the officer keeps his weapon pointed at me. The gun wavers like a flickering flame.
I am forced to contemplate whether this is it, the fateful moment when I die. If I was murdered, it would be because a cop’s twitchy trigger finger fired his gun and killed another unarmed black man. No doubt, and unfortunately so, he would fabricate a cover story, claiming that I did something to make him feel that his life was in danger.
I keep my hands in the air, perfectly still. My whole body is as stationary as a statute. I’m as still as he is. Then, finally, the cop takes a deep breath, which seems to snap him out of his trance. He orders me to step out of my car.
I tell the jury what happened next (verbatim from court transcript):
At that point, I slowly moved, I stand up. He (Alter) says, ‘Put your hands in the air,’ which I did, and I turned around as he instructed. He said, ‘Put your hands on top of the car.’ I did so. He said, ‘Spread your legs.’ I followed his instructions.
Alter is now standing directly behind me. His gun remains drawn on me. With his free hand, he reaches for his walkie-talkie. He calls in his 10-20, his location, and requests back up. I’m thinking, What the hell is going on? Is this another Jump Out Squad situation, like back in Southeast D.C., when a cop jumped from a car to harass me and others walking down the street?
Damnit, is this what cops now do all over the city, jump out and accost black people for the heck of it? Or did something in the immediate area recently happen and I’m just in the wrong place at the wrong time? (Police later admitted that there had been a general problem with stolen autos in the city, but not in the area where I was driving.)
Alter finishes using the walk talkie, and so there we are in the alley, just him and me. Now he starts right in on me:
‘Well, what are you doing in this car? Why are you in this car? Where did you steal this car?’ Shortly after—I didn’t respond to any of his questions; I was still with my hands on top of my car with my feet spread a part and he is in back of me asking me these questions—other officers began to arrive … One of the officers said, ‘Is that a 924 or is that a 944 Porsche? How fast does it go? That is a mean looking vehicle. I know that he has been speeding.’
Obviously, like Alter, the backup officers are intrigued and excited by the circumstances of this particular traffic stop. Their remarks reveal that they see the Porsche as a beautiful work of engineering art that is supposed to be beyond the reach of someone such as myself. The dream car looks twice as expensive as it actually is. But, they don’t know that. Their jealousy unleashes hidden prejudices and hatreds. These cops become determined to punish me for simply being a successful professional rather than the criminal they expected me to be—the criminal they wanted and needed me to be to justify their racially-tinged prejudices and assumptions.
Dr. Akubudike, a medical doctor and psychologist in private practice, has a succinct description for racial bias against black men. In an interview with me he said, “For a black man in America, it’s ‘Damned, if I do. Damned if I don’t.’ If he looks poor and struggling, racists say he’s lazy. If he looks professional and polished, and is driving a beautiful car, they say he must be selling drugs.’”
Continuing my courtroom testimony, I state that:
They said, “What do you do all day? Do you drive around waiting for somebody to page you?” I had a beeper on from work. “Or do you work?” I didn’t respond to any of that.
The other officers, one-by-one, began to talk about, “Well, we know you stole the car. We got you.” The sergeant arrived. The sergeant began to ask me questions about, “Well, he’s probably got drugs or weapons in the car. You can search the car.” The officers who had been there had not started searching the car, yet. They then began to ransack the car.
I’m getting perturbed about now, so while the illegal search is being conducted, I say to the sergeant, “A black guy can’t drive a nice car in this town without you thinking he is a drug dealer? Give me a break.”
The sergeant said, “Well, where is your driver’s license?” I said, Officer, my driver’s license is in my wallet, which is in my briefcase on the floor of the passenger’s side of the car. He checked that. He got on the radio and he called into the operator the name and the license tag.
The sergeant, Charlie Vanderfill, a short, lightweight white man about 50 years old with red hair and a matching handlebar mustache, looks like an old sailor. A police dispatch operator informs him that my license was clear and there are no warrants or anything against me. I’m thinking, This should all be over soon and I will be on my way again. But, the cops aren’t thinking like that. Their strange way of conducting police business was about to get even stranger.
First, about six more white officers arrive on the scene. Then the real cop circus begins. Within moments, two of the officers grabbed me by my shoulders, turned me around and held onto me. A third officer placed metal shackles on my wrists. I thought, I am being treated like a runaway slave.
Other officers began to talk about “Well, he is a big guy.” “He is a very big guy.” “We had better make sure these handcuffs are tight on him” … I was yanked away from my car by my left arm by Officer Alter and he told me to walk across the alley and put my hands on a fence … and spread my legs, which I did. I was frisked three times. The handcuffs were put on me.
After the shackles are clamped around my wrists, Alter claims they needed to cuff me to prevent me from fleeing. Now I am thinking, “This must be how it felt being a runaway slave captured by bounty hunters.” From the witness stand, I described the ensuing banter among the cops, after they cuffed me.
They began to talk about how big I was and how tough I probably thought I was. … One of the officers said, “Yeah, the nigger thinks he is bad. He is a bad ass.” I don’t respond to any of this.
At this point where they tightened the handcuffs on my wrists, I say to the officers, ‘Officers, you’re making a mistake.’ They say, “Well, that sounds like a threat to me.” “Are you threatening us?” The sergeant says, “That sounds like a threat to me, guys. I said, ‘No, officer, that is not a threat. I simply want you to know that I know my rights.’
This is when the sergeant becomes visibly agitated. Sounding like a ringleader of a gang, he goes into super bad cop mode the moment he hears me say, “I know my rights.”
He taunts me, saying: “Well, you know your rights, huh?”
I reply, “Yes.” And also I ask him to contact Chief of Police Maurice Turner, who I knew from my work covering the police beat for the Washington Post. Turner was a gregarious gentleman and we had a great rapport. I figured a call to him would quickly clear things up. The sergeant refuses my request, but is stunned by it nonetheless. He gets defensive and nervous, realizing that I was not some drug pusher cruising around the city while waiting for a beep on my pager after all, but instead someone who knows the city’s top cop, his big boss. I then casually add that I am the spokesman for the Department of Corrections. His jaws tighten and his face turns as red as a stoplight. He is now nervous and angry.
Coaching a Cop to Lie
Sensing the need to cover up the flagrantly groundless police stop that he is now in charge of, the sergeant goes on the offensive. He issues devious, carefully-structured questions and instructions that sound like they were pulled from a template for framing an innocent man.
[The sergeant] called over Officer Alter to the side, and I overheard him telling Officer Alter, like a coach … Was he going fast? … Officer Alter kind of nodded, as the sergeant basically put words in his mouth. The sergeant said, “Was he going over 65 miles an hour?”
Alter is confused by this fake number that Vanderfill gave him. Alter knows that I did not drive 65 miles an hour and there is no evidence to substantiate such a claim. So, for some moral support, he looks towards his Fifth District (5D) police precinct buddy and fellow rookie, Ederheimer, who was the first backup officer to arrive on the scene that day. Ederheimer glances back at Alter, raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, Hey, dude, whatever. Alter then replies to the sergeant: “OK, he was going over 65 miles an hour. OK.”
The sergeant replies, “We can only arrest him if he was recklessly driving, and reckless driving is 30 miles above the speed limit. That is the reason for the arrest. That’s what you write in your report.”
The sergeant’s math was off. The speed limit was 25, but no matter. The fact is, if I had truly sped 65 miles per hour, fleeing from Alter on the narrow, two-lane 13th Street, and then attempted to make a sharp, 45-degree turn on the even-narrower Shepherd Street, where the house for sale was located, I would have had to jam down the brake pedal to make the hard turn, and this would have caused the Porsche’s new tires to screech, leaving black skid marks on the pavement. In other words, there would be physical evidence to corroborate the cops’ allegation—if it were true. Of course, the cops did not concern themselves with this little evidentiary problem. The lack of physical evidence would be up to the jury to sort out—in their favor, they hoped.
(Cops know that most jurors generally always give greater weight to the testimony of the police, given the overwhelming socio-political propaganda that induces the public to believe that all cops are good cops who can be trusted and that bad cops are the rare occurrence, the blue moon exception to the rule rather than the all-too-common occurrence black men know them to be. At the root of the propaganda is the Officer Friendly childhood indoctrination that cops administer in tens of thousands of elementary and middle schools across the nation. The effects of the Officer Friendly mystique can last a lifetime, because of the staying power of childhood first impressions. Such impressions, psychologists say, can make the defining difference in jury decisions.)
Sergeant Vanderfill continues coaching Alter, proceeding to lead the rookie through the brief but methodical process of trumping up charges and falsifying the police report. Ederheimer lends Alter more moral support, nestling up close to him, whispering in his ear.
With no drugs, no physical evidence and no witnesses, the cops focus only on fabricating fake “facts” to bolster Alter’s report. The sergeant asks him leading questions:
“Did he run any red lights? How many lights did he run? Two, three, four? When you get to the station, just fill it all in, make sure it’s right.”
Alter was apparently learning his first lesson in the down-and-dirty details of racist policing. I was learning, too. I learned that this was the way racist cops abuse their power to arrest, charge and incarcerate black men. Sgt. Vanderfill and his troop of cops were tyrants. Their false charges, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, were “pretended offenses.”
Interestingly, two black cops, who are last to arrive on the scene, do not participate in the arrest or join in the banter among the cluster of white officers already present. Instead, they stand back, watching with empathy and disgust in their eyes—empathy as they look at me, the young brother with the glistening new ride, and disgust as they look towards their overly anxious white colleagues, who are proudly conspiring to do me in like giddy devils delighting in their creative evil.
The scene is now skewed by the presence of the un-involved black cops standing close together and passively watching the conspiring white cops, who are huddled together about 10 yards away. I am witnessing the way good cops watch bad cops when they see bad cops committing dirty acts, but do nothing to stop them. It is clear that the white cops are out of control, yet that age-old tool of cop secrecy and coverup, the Thin Blue Line, forces the black cops to not interfere, not object to the injustice, not to piss off their colleagues and jeopardize their careers. I imaging that both black cops thinking the same this: This ain’t right. But there is nothing we can do about it.
With the fictitious “facts” established, and with no objections except from me, it is now time for the cops to do what they do best: take a brother in. Things are about to get worse.
While I remain standing, facing the fence, with my hands shackled tightly behind me and aching with pain, Officers Alter and Ederheimer approach me from behind and each grabs one of my arms. They then begin to lead me into the back of Alter’s squad car. As they yank my arms, the pain in my hands becomes unbearable. The pain has already numbed my wrists. Now it shoots tingling, sharp, pin-like surges down into the very tips of my fingers. So tortuous is this pulsating pain, it feels like my hands are being burned in a sizzling hot waffle iron.
I began to feel very much afraid as well as feel a lot of pain and tension, because my hands were behind my back and the manacles were very tightly on my hands. And my hands began throbbing.
The pain causes me to stiffen my arms and hands as the officers begin jerking my body. My aim is to reduce the pressure of the excruciatingly tight handcuffs. As I brace myself, I feel the two cops start to yank me even harder. I trip over Alter’s foot and fall against his squad car as he and Ederheimer try to jam me inside of it. They would handle a piece of furniture with greater care. The pain has reached a crescendo. If this were an opera, this would be where the singer hits and holds the highest note. My wrists were screaming and bleeding. Intuitively, my body became immovable, like a mountain. I turn my head towards Alter and in a hushed tone, I ask him to please loosen the cuffs. He ignores me. I continue to stand firm for a few seconds hoping he would grant my humble request before jamming me into the squad car.
Then it happened.
The dreadful turning point had come.
The law enforcement lions are about to go into attack mode. Being suddenly unable to push my strong, hardened body for those brief seconds, Alter and Ederheimer react in a panic as if they think I am about to go buck wild and hurt them. They automatically did what the police academy trained them to do. In perfect unison, they shouted to their colleagues: “He’s resisting arrest! He’s resisting arrest!”
Those three magical words must have been their code red distress signal—or battle cry—because seconds later about four other officers ran towards them to help them. Now they are all jerking me violently, causing both of my feet to leave the ground as their group force overpowers me. This is the prelude to a police beat down. I turn directly to the jury and scan their eyes and facial expressions as I describe this moment:
And I am trying to resist their pushing me, because at one point I fell on one of the squad cars. They pulled me back off and I am trying to brace myself so I don’t fall. And they continued pushing me more. Then I felt from behind, I couldn’t identify who hit me, but I had felt several fists crunch against my side.
My Voice, My Only Weapon
These are not soft taps hitting my body. Some of these officers have bulging muscles and large fists, and they are hammering me like heavy weight boxers pounding a punching bag. The gang beats and jerks my body like they are trying to make sure they have complete control of me so I cannot resist. The unified beating and jerking by the dozen fists makes it clear that the cops are re-enacting a training exercise in which I have been identified as a dangerous suspect who must be attacked and subdued.
It seems to me that they are manhandling me … brutalizing me … all according to their official rule book. Despite the fact that this protocol is utterly unnecessary, since I had not resisted arrest and I am posing absolutely no threat to them.
This truth does not set me free. It means nothing in this petrified moment. The beating is weakening me. Feeling totally defenseless, yet not giving up hope, my mind races to figure out what to do next. The gang is jostling my body, but my consciousness enters a zone of calmness, like the eye of a storm. This allows me to think critically rather than panic. There must be something I can do, I think to myself. I have got to do something.
I am being flung around like a defenseless man-sized brown-skin rag doll, they are even punching me in my head. Blessedly, they did not try to knock out my teeth. So, the one part of my body I can control is my mouth. Yes! My voice would set me free!
Indeed. I can shout. I can yell for help. That’s what I can do. Hopefully that would compel some neighbors who might be home at this time of day to step outside and eyewitness this ugly scene.
I decide to go for it. I raise my chin skyward so my voice will carry above the mass of steamy armpits amassed around me, and I shout as loudly as I possibly can.
To the jury I repeated what I shouted:
“HELP!!! Somebody HELP me! Police brutality! … POLICE BRUTALITY!!!’
I know enough about the police to understand that an arrest that they know is being witnessed is not likely to escalate to a vicious or fatal stage of brutality. Though, as America and the rest of the world have recently come to see, via dramatic videos of police violence recorded by bystanders, this is not always the case. Not at all.
Immediately after they hear my shouting some neighbors, three or four, come outside their homes and onto their back porches and stoops to see what is going on in their normally empty and quiet alley. From the safety of their neatly trimmed, fenced-in yards, a couple of dozen yards away from where I am being yanked around, they curiously and silently watch the scene unfold.
Suddenly, Sergeant Vanderfill’s eyes bulge in disbelief that I have used my voice like a magic wand, causing witnesses to instantly emerge from their homes and stand there, watching him and his band of bullies dressed in blue. The handful of neighbors, all of them black—a couple of elderly women and a younger man—monitor the cops like human video cameras. Vanderfill orders his bullies to stop pushing me.
“Put him on the ground!” he barks.
An officer hits me in the back of my head with his forearm while others kick my feet from beneath me.
I am now falling down face-forward. My reflexes kick in as I turn my torso towards my right side. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the fall. Just before hitting the ground, I turn my head as far left as I can so I will avoid breaking my nose against the pavement. As I land, I absorb the impact on my right shoulder and leg. Then I gently roll left and straighten my entire body flat against the ground so the cops won’t kick me to force me into a fully prone position. Now I am lying still, facing the ground, with the cops standing around me, unmoving. My nose is less than an inch above the concrete. I can’t breathe normally, being so close to the dirt and tiny rocks on the pavement. I have to make sure I don’t inhale normally, else I’ll draw a lot of the dirt and rocks into my nostrils. I blow my breath against the ground as hard as I can so I can clear the little area closest to my nose. I can now breathe normally without inhaling the grit on the rough-hewn alley pavement. I had never noticed that the sandy-colored concrete actually had thousands of groves in it, just deep enough, I think, to give automobile tires something to grip.
As I lay on the ground, I sense the worst is over, thanks to the witnesses, now battlefield observers. I relax a bit, as much as can be expected, given the dynamics of this weird situation that I’ve been sucked into. My mind now focuses on one thing: surviving this terrible encounter. I tell myself, This too shall pass. You will get over this. Just hold on.
A quiet peace slowly takes possession over my mind, though my wrists continue to ache. By now they are numb, which masks the trauma they are enduring.
I stare at the many pairs of stiff blue pants cascading into black shoes covering once-scuffling feet that are now at ease. I lift my head slowly and look towards the faces of the officers still encircling me. I want to remember their faces. Their eyes all skirt away, avoiding direct contact. Some turn their heads. Others turn completely about face so that all I can see are their backs.
The black cops remain standoffish. They have not moved at all, having refrained from participating in the beat down. Perhaps this is their way of protesting the ridiculous police activity playing out before them. They do not turn away when I look towards them. I actually nod towards them as if to say, thanks for the moral support. Their presence and seeming empathy do in fact give me some solace. They are good cops, but they are outnumbered. If they stood up for me it would hurt their careers. I understand their predicament. I shake my head. “This is unbelievable,” I quietly say.
I would like to think that the cops who brutalized me were good cops also but just caught up in a bad situation. I know better. Vanderfill was dirty, plain and simple, and the other white cops were eager to follow in his filthy footsteps.
The pause in the action creates a shift in the energy. As I told the court, the scene has now changed. The sergeant orders his underlings to stand down and chill:
The sergeant said, “Back away from him.” The officers obeyed the sergeant. So I laid there.
The sergeant then began to talk to me some more. He said to me, “Well, you work for the Corrections Department. Are you an officer? I bet you sell drugs to inmates, don’t you?”
A frown creases the sergeant’s face as he turns towards the clutch of white officers now at ease and watching him interrogate me.
“How does he get this car?” I don’t respond to any of that. He says, “Who’s your boss? I want to talk to your boss today, because by the end of the day you’re not going to work for the Corrections Department anymore.” I didn’t respond to that.
The sergeant gets on his walkie-talkie and summons a paddy wagon to the scene. Then he says to me: “You asshole. You’re not good enough to ride in one of our nice air-conditioned police cars. We’re gonna have to take you in a nice hot paddy wagon. Asshole.”
I lay on the ground for 20 minutes. I counted the minutes, because it was all I could do …
The paddy wagon came. The sergeant said, “Turn over, stand up, get up and get in the paddy wagon.” I did. I got in the paddy wagon. They shut the door.
The rest of my ordeal is as if I were a rock kicked off the side of a mountain and falling into a dark, bottomless crevice ripped between the known and unknown.
The back of the paddy wagon was the size of a small bedroom. The space was dimly lit and smelled like sheet metal. With my hands still shackled behind me, I sat down on a long metal bench attached to the left wall of the wagon.
I was not alone. Seated to my left and on the opposite bench were a total of about seven other young, handcuffed black men. Each man had a plaintiff look on his face. I swept my eyes around about me, looking into the eyes of each man. I nodded at some of them, and they nodded back. Some were dressed in sagging jeans, others like myself, were not. A couple of them had dreadlocks. Some, like me, had neatly cut hair. Except for the shackles, everyone basically looked normal, like we were all sitting on an old city bus heading to work. We were unwilling passengers, each probably snatched off the street like I was. Perhaps most were in the wagon for viable reasons. And at least one for no reason at all—me.
The paddy wagon took off towards downtown, to the U.S. Marshals Service’s Cellblock, which was a large holding cell for arrestees slated for arraignment. In the rear of the paddy wagon it was mostly quiet, except for the loud bumps caused when the wheels of the speeding vehicle dashed in and out of potholes. The hard bounces thrust my body momentarily into the air and then slammed it back down.
The vehicle made several turns. There were no security belts to keep me from falling off the bench. Instead, I braced myself as best I could, leaning back against the wall while pressing my shoes against the floor. The other men experienced the same ordeal.
We could hear the officers in the cab of the truck talking to each other and laughing.
Being bounced around on a metal bench, hands shackled behind my back hurt. A lot. After one particularly hard bounce, pain shot through my neck and back and I blurted: “Goddamn!”
A guy sitting across from me, who had apparently ridden in a government-sponsored hell hole on wheels before, said “Yeah, man. They think this is a game. They’re getting their kicks doing this shit to us.”
(Decades later, as the result of Freddie Gray’s fatal accident in the back of a police wagon on April 12, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland, America would learn that such abusive police transport was known as law enforcement’s version of a “rough ride.”)
The wagon stopped on two occasions, picking up more men in shackles. The bench was only so long, so as more men were shoved inside, we had to scoot down to make room. No one complained about the inconvenience. There seemed to be an air of, not friendship per se, but a sense of kinship. We were bonded together through some unfortunate drama in our lives, either caused by ourselves or others.
There were now about 10 of us. Some looked down towards the floor, others straight ahead, some with their heads hung low. One guy was nodding off.
In a moment of self-reflection, a guy who looked to be about 30 and dressed colorfully in a red t-shirt and red and white tennis shoes, spoke to no one in particular. Looking up towards the ceiling of the cramped, gray cell, he shook his head and said, “Damn! I knew I should’ve stopped sellin’ them drugs. I was going to quit selling, man. I swear, man. I swear. I was just trying to make a couple more hundred (dollars) to pay my rent, then I swear I was gonna get me a job, man.” His words were so poignant; perfect for this deplorable scenario. His statement could have been scripted for a movie about a drug dealer trying to get out of “the life,” but finding it too hard to do. The underdog trying to find a way to win. It was just the kind of revelation you’d want any wayward man to have. The prodigal son, tired of the madness and trying to find his way home, trying to pick himself up and move on with his life. But for some reason unable to set himself free.
A flash of cynicism cut through the syrupy moment: “Motherfuck that shit, man,” one of the men muttered back at the wannabe reformed criminal. “You know you’ll be right back out there in a heartbeat slinging them dime bags like it ain’t shit.”
The rolling wagon swayed from side to side as some of us meditated on the brief dialogue. Then someone remarked, “Yo, don’t crush the man’s spirit. Yesterday, I was sayin the same shit he just said … When I get out, I ain’t never comin back in this bitch.”
The ride to the Department of Corrections Central Cell Block, which was located about five miles from the alley where the police coerced me to climb into the back of the paddy wagon and about a mile from the White House and, lasted about an hour. The cell block was buried beneath the DC Superior Court building. The paddy wagon pulled slowly down into the courthouse garage and stopped. Each man was gently assisted out of the wagon by a well-built black police officer in a crisp blue uniform. He grabbed me by my left arm and helped me hop out of the paddy wagon. I looked at his face. He smiled. Seemingly genuinely. I could not return the gesture.
I studied his facial features seeking confirmation that I had seen him before. He looked so damn familiar, but I could not get a clear picture in my mind of where I may have had seen him. I concluded that I must have met him when I was a Washington Post police reporter.
He greeted me with a booming voice: “It’s a great day! How are you doing?” He had greeted the other prisoners in the same way. He kept smiling as he peered into my eyes. He was trying to encourage my spirit. I was thankful for his effort. I felt slightly uplifted.
I muttered: “How do I look like I’m doing, man?”
“You look just fine. Don’t take this too hard. You’ll be out of here soon enough. It’s a great day!”
I took a deep breath and sighed. “OK, man. That’s cool. Let’s just get this shit over with.”
I and the other inmates were walked across the garage, down a long hallway and into a huge holding cell. There, officers took off our cuffs and shut the gate. At least 20 other men stood in the cell, all of them black. Some leaned against a rear wall. I do not recall there being any chairs or benches to sit on. Each man had to wait for his turn to be interviewed by jail personnel to determine his status — Fixed address? Drug use? Job?
An officer handed me a pee cup and ordered me to step out of the cell, go into a nearby restroom and urinate into the cup. I was taken back to the cell while they tested my pee. While in the bathroom I run cold water over my wrists, bringing relief and washing the blood and dirt embedded in the cuts that the cuffs had torn into flesh. Then I peed and walked back out. I had no concern about what they would find in my urine. Nothing.
I noticed that every 15 minutes or so, an inmate who had been interviewed and had his pee tested was taken out of the cell and marched upstairs to a courtroom, where a judge would determine whether to release him or keep him detained until his trial date.
While I waited to be taken before the judge, I milled around the spacious cell, making no conversation with any of the other encaged men. In no mood to talk, I was steaming like a pot of hot water about to boil. What the fuck am I doing in here? Those motherfucking dirty ass cops … I hung my head and slowly shook it while the irritating images of the cop gang flashed across my mind. One image in particular was most clear: My ground-level view of the police officers’ dusty shoes that were in my face as I lay on the pavement. Also, the words of the angry little ruddy-faced white, racist, crooked, corrupt, bullshit sergeant rang in my ears: “Asshole … by the end of the day you’re not going to work for the Corrections Department anymore.”
Snapping out of my post-traumatic imaginings, I looked up towards the cell gate. I saw no activity there, no one coming to get me. So, I scanned the entire approximately 10-yard horizontal stretch of tall steel bars in front of me. Looking through the bars was so surreal. I hoped that this was just a nasty nightmare and when the gate opened, I would wake up and walk out. Yes, I would walk out of this hellish basement and in no time, I would be driving my car again, listening to music, soaking up sun and taking care of business.
But the nightmare refused to end, so I shook my head again and looked blankly straight ahead. My eyes began to focus beyond the steel bars. On the opposite side, seated close to each other behind tinted glass were about a half dozen correctional professionals busying themselves at their workstations. I saw desktop computers, telephones and then … Then my eyes saw something that made me feel happy for a few seconds and then yanked me back into my shame and embarrassment.
Sitting directly in front of me was a bright light of hope trying to beam its way through the dark clouds of misery that had engulfed me. This wonderful light was emanating from the gorgeous, cherubic face of my father’s former girlfriend, Carolyn. She was one of the correctional personnel seated at the bank of workstations.
Carolyn had been a model. I had no idea she was now working for the law enforcement system, like me. My lips tightened and frowned.
Clearly, she had been watching me the whole while, because as soon as I looked towards her, she was already looking at me. Her eyes locked onto mine and did not waver.
She appeared to be in shock. Her eyes widened. Her body froze. My body relaxed a bit. Seeing me made her feel sad, but seeing her made me feel warm inside. In her I saw a lovely, friendly face. Someone to bear witness. Someone who knew me. Someone who knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I did not belong in that cage.
I took a deep breath and tried to smile. Our eyes remained locked together. We spoke without words. Both of us were thinking the same thing:
There was nothing either one of us could do to set me free. She, sitting behind that smoky glass wall in a clerical role. I, a prisoner, standing behind the black steel bars of a brightly lit cage. All we could do was nod at each other, which we did.
I tried harder to smile. I lifted my chin to let her know that I was OK. It was important for me to make her understand that I was the same person she had always known me to be, and that she need not worry, because I was strong enough to survive this funky-ass predicament.
I needed her to know that evil law enforcers, patrolling the streets of DC like body snatchers stalking black male prey, had taken possession of my body, but they could never possess my spirit.
I remembered Carolyn well. We had always had a good relationship. She was always soft-spoken and very kind. After a few more seconds of staring warmly at each other, as if hugging one another from a distance, a supervisor stepped to her and she skittishly turned her attention to him. I in turn walked to the other side of the cage. I did not want to keep looking at her. It would only make both of us feel uncomfortable.
Hours had passed since I had left my office earlier in the day. It was now about 3 p.m. I was allowed to leave the cell for a few minutes to contact my boss and let him know what had happened. Hallem Williams, director of the Department of Corrections, was not available. So, I talked to his highly professional, very kind, gracious and concerned secretary, Gladys, instead. I informed her of my situation and I told her that the charges against me were untrue.
She replied, “Really? Are you sure? … The police called here to confirm you worked for the Corrections Department. They said you were driving a brand new Porsche and you had drugs in your car and you were planning on selling them to inmates. They said you resisted arrest … And they also said you should be fired.”
I laughed, nervously. “No. I shouldn’t be fired, because none of that is true. Don’t believe a word they said. This is unbelievable. They made it all up. You know me. Don’t believe them. This is all going to be cleared up as soon as I get out of here. Believe me.”
“Okay, Ed. I believe you,” she said. “But you need to clear this up quickly before you lose your job. This makes the department look very bad.”
“It makes me look very bad, and yes, it makes the department look bad, too. But I have faith … So, I’m sure this mess will get cleared up.”
“OK, well thanks for calling. This helps a lot,” she said. “I’ll tell Hallem you called and I’ll tell him what you said … Take care of yourself. Be very careful.”
After the call, I went back to the holding cell. I was ultimately taken before the judge to determine my status—Would I be released or kept in jail? Since I had no prior convictions and there were no drugs in my urine, I was released.
On my way outdoors to fresh air and freedom, I stopped in a restroom to wash my face and hands. My hands were still numb and in pain. The were on my wrists. The cuts the cuffs sawed through my brown skin remained raw and droplets of blood dripped from the white flesh beneath.
The cops had impounded my car, so after leaving the courthouse, I caught a taxi home. During the taxi ride, I heard the story of my arrest broadcast on an all-news radio station. (I would later learn that a local television station covered the story as well.) I asked the driver to turn up the volume so I could hear more clearly. The newscaster gave a report the gist of which stated:
Edward Sargent, spokesman for the DC Jail, was arrested today for speeding recklessly and trying to flee from the police. The police suspect drugs are involved.
I responded to the news report after it ended, thinking to myself, but saying out loud: “Drugs?!!! That’s crazy! That’s an outright lie just to make people believe the false charges … Unbelievable!”
The driver, a foreigner, looked at me in the rearview mirror. Recalling that he had picked me up outside the courthouse, he asked in a Middle Eastern accent, “Are they talking about you?”
I looked at him as if to ask, Why are you bothering me? But I was polite and nodded, yes.
“You ran from the police?”
“Of course not. Do I look like a fool?”
“So, they are lying about you”
I wondered whether this type of law enforcement behavior was common practice in his native land, perhaps a repressive dictatorship or police state of some sort. His tone indicated that he was not surprised that police officers would do such a thing.
I reply: “That’s correct. They’re lying.” Then, my mind starts to drift off. After a short while, the taxi driver interrupts me.
Shaking his head, while looking straight forward as he drives along with the traffic, he says: “You know, some of these people in the media are just parrots. They say whatever the cops tell them to say. They’re such suckers.”
Yeah, I silently agree. Some of them are. Cops pitch lies to reporters like candy, and some do swallow them. I always knew that, but I had never imagined I would be in a situation where the police lied about me.
Be that as it may, the prosecutor swallowed those sweet lies and presented them to the jury as evidence. I hoped that the jury would not swallow it as well. I hoped that each juror had been attentive and open-minded as they listened to both sides, and would weigh all of the facts in the case. I hoped and prayed that each would judge me fairly, despite the pressure and the temptation to lean towards believing every word the police officers said from the witness stand.
To say that the police lie was sacrosanct back then, 30 years ago. But in recent years the onslaught of ugly videotaped police violence has blown once-closed minds wide open.
While I was unsure what the jurors would do, after I left the witness stand I was 100 percent certain that the evidence presented on my behalf at least had a fighting chance to influence their hearts and minds. Attorney Nesbitt, in a piercing closing argument, explained to the jurors that the police officers’ entire case against me was based on an old dirty trick. Speaking gently and making eye contact with each juror, Nesbitt gave them a simple question to ponder: “What’s the best defense?”
He paused and then answered the question for them: “A good offense.”
Then he continued: “Isn’t that the old fashion statement that we used to hear so often? ‘When you really got my back against the wall and I look like I’m the one in trouble, the easiest way for me to avoid trouble is to put you in trouble.” Several jurors nodded their heads in agreement.
Nesbitt continued, stating that Alter and his crew had discovered that they had not stopped a drug dealer or dangerous criminal. They had actually cornered someone who they feared knew the chief of the police. They got nervous, thinking that I might be a threat to their jobs, Nesbit said. He told the jury that the cops, led by their on-scene supervisor, felt that they had to defend their actions. So, the gang of bad cops schemed together and went on the offense. They set me up. Made me the bad guy. They falsified charges and arrested me to make it appear that I had done wrong, Nesbitt said. Don’t believe them, he said.
After deliberating for a short length of time, less than 30 minutes, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” on the very serious charge of reckless driving. The quick verdict signaled that each member of the jury beyond a shadow of a doubt believed that the cops had lied.
Lady Justice Is Not Blind after All
Lesser charges had also been lodged against me. Those charges were for speeding 30 miles above the speed limit, which was also a lie, and possession of a radar detector. The radar detector, which was only used while I drove my Porsche along nearby Maryland highways, where such alert devices were legal, was turned off and had remained undisturbed and in the glove compartment throughout the morning on the day of my arrest. As for the radar and speeding charges, Weisberg had the singular power—acting as judge and jury—to determine my fate. By law those charges were not subject to jury review, since the possible penalty for each was less than six months in the slammer.
Weisberg entered a guilty judgment against me on both of the lesser charges, despite attorney Nesbitt’s highly effective legal surgery, which both obliterated the government’s weak case like radiation removing cancer cells, and elicited a swift jury decision that demonstrated that the jurors were certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the cops were wrong.
Weisberg refused to admit that the masterful Nesbitt had won the day for me. The judge, who stood about four-and-a-half-feet tall but towered over the courtroom from the judge’s bench, confessed that he wrestled over his decision in the “bench trial” portion of the proceedings. Agonized by the jury’s rapid decision in its portion of the case, Weisberg took a long recess to get over his shock. When he reappeared—the next day—he struggled to look directly at me, and then he shakily stated: “Rendering the decision in your case … was one of the most difficult decisions I have made as a judge, because I have great respect for the jury system. I have great confidence and respect for jurors. And I was impressed, to say the least, with the speed with which the jury was able to resolve conflicting testimony and disputed facts and render its decision in your case in your favor.”
Then, in what surely remains one of the most arrogant pronouncements ever uttered to an American citizen by a sitting judge in the Capital of the Free World, Weisberg, sounding like a conscienceless tyrant, looked towards me and justified his guilty verdict, declaring that “If I am wrong, as you say I am, then of course, you are the victim of an injustice … [Y]ou are not the first and you will not be the last.”
With that said, the entire case was over. With no prior convictions, imposing a jail sentence even for less than six months was unjustifiable. So, in the end, Weisberg could only impose some fines, which I paid and walked out of the courthouse.
The day after the trial ended, The Post ran a news short on the results of the proceedings. The terse item ran on page seven of the Metro section:
Jail Spokesman Acquitted
D.C. Corrections Department spokesman Edward D. Sargent was acquitted of reckless driving and found guilty of two lesser charges … possessing a radar device and driving 30 mph over the speed limit …
The months-long legal preparations and the suspenseful trial were stressful for me, but the process was a picnic for the racialized cops. You see, whether they had officially won or lost the courtroom battle did not really matter to them. They watched me walk out of court a free man instead of serving a jail sentence. Plus, I did not lose my job. Nevertheless, they knew that in a very practical sense they had scored another kind of victory, one that to them represented a satisfying consolation prize. They knew that they had succeeded in bullying and embarrassing me. Using the power of arrest, they had beaten me, pulverized my reputation and pulled me—publicly—through the psychological, emotional and financial wringer of the law enforcement machine.
Such is the nature of racialized street cops—the self-absorbed gatekeepers of the legal system. They see themselves as puppet masters. Given the chance, they tamper with evidence and pull the strings of jailers, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors and judges, too. They have vast power to do harm to anyone they choose. More often than not, they choose black men.
Their manipulations are like the ball bearings and wheels that keep the conveyor belt of injustice rolling, producing more and more criminal cases. Michelle Alexander writes about the impact of this continual onslaught of criminalization in her book, The New Jim Crow: She writes: “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000. The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United Sates imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.”
Within those statistics are sad, sad stories and terrible memories. There is one memory I have from my trial that is impossible for me to forget. When I see a smirking white cop in the midst of making an arrest or after being cleared of serious charges, such as murdering an unarmed black man, the image quickly appears before my third-eye and hangs there. I see Alter all over again. Alter—his name is a poignant reminder in itself—because he altered my life. I see him seated in the witness stand, lying, lying, lying and trying his damnedest to push me into the ranks of the nation’s incarcerated black males. I see the cocky rookie with the round, puffy boyish face and bad haircut, bug his eyes, make dopey faces and stick his tongue out at me. Yes, during a break in his testimony, while the prosecutor and my lawyer conferred with the judge, the cop stared at me while I sat at the defense table and actually stuck out his tongue.
His childish display of hatred reminded me of the tiny racist that I chased home when I was a kid, after he called me “nigger” in an effort to hurt my feelings. What a simpleminded cop this guy Alter.
His hurtful message was clear: Look at what I done to you, Mr. Big Shot Nigger. Nah, nah, nah-nah, nah.