Stories – Residents describe racial profiling

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt March 31, 2014
Terry LeCount, a former NFL wide receiver and paraprofessional at Oakhurst Elementary, tells his story about being stopped by Decatur Police. LeCount and other residents gathered on March 30 to discuss how to deal with perceived racial profiling by police officers.

Terry LeCount, a former NFL wide receiver and paraprofessional at Oakhurst Elementary, tells his story about being stopped by Decatur Police. LeCount and other residents gathered on March 30 to discuss how to deal with perceived racial profiling by police officers.

The stories were filled with disbelief, sarcasm, anger and – sometimes – dry humor.

Black men stood in front of a room of about 70 people at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church on March 30 and described how it felt after they were stopped by Decatur Police. The men all said they were stopped because either police officers or a resident had racially profiled them.

Rex Kaney, a white retired United Methodist minister, mediated the meeting. Decatur Police officers were not invited and did not attend in any official capacity.  The meeting included whites and blacks, some of whom were members of Oakhurst Presbyterian.

One man who spoke, Don Denard, is former city school board member. Another man, Terry LeCount, is a former NFL wide receiver who works as a paraprofessional at Oakhurst Elementary.

Denard’s story of being stopped by police while walking down his street in December was the trigger point for the meeting. He said police are trying to show residents that they are working to combat crime in the community, which is leading to more uncomfortable encounters between black men and police.

“They want to send a message to the citizens of Decatur that we’re on it and want to send a message to black people that we’re watching you,” Denard said.

He showed dashboard camera video from his encounter with police on South Candler Street. Three police cars stopped to talk to him after an officer thought he looked suspicious after she saw him walking down his driveway. An internal police department investigation determined that there was no racial profiling involved in the situation. On the video, a black Decatur police officer is seen shaking his head in disbelief as he’s walking back toward the police car.

LeCount said he was stopped by an officer while walking near Agnes Scott who told him he “fit the description of somebody.” In addition to LeCount working at Oakhurst Elementary and being a former professional football player, he was also named a Decatur Hometown Hero in 2010 for his work with kids in Decatur.

LeCount assumed most people know who he is.

“I would think since I’ve been here for so long, most people if you see me, you would know me,” he said. “They know me for the things that I do. I work with kindergarteners. Most people know me as the guy that works with the little bitty kids.”

Thaddeus Nathaniel, whose wife is white and from Decatur, said he was stopped twice: once after a resident called the police because they thought he looked “lost,” and once by a Decatur Police officer. The officer told him there was a law against soliciting and asked him for his identification. Nathaniel said he would not show his ID, because he had done nothing wrong. He said he was headed downtown to distribute surveys for his job.

Eventually, police were able to verify Nathaniel’s identity and let him go.

Meredith Gordon said he was walking down the street early one morning in Winnona Park where he lived. A neighbor saw his silver coffee mug and thought it was a gun.

“I was drinking coffee that morning,” Gordon said. “I was listening to my iPod and having a nice walk. I was thinking I live in a really cool neighborhood.”

He was stopped by a police officer. Then another police car arrived. Gordon said he thinks his age put officers at ease.

“They saw me as a middle aged guy,” Gordon said. “They quickly, they kind of chill, and we paused for a moment of awkward silence. I said, ‘Well, what happens next?’ He said, ‘Well, nothing.'”

Gordon said for a minute he began to doubt that it even happened, until he filed a records request and confirmed it himself.

“The person that called the police on me – I don’t know what their deal is,” he said. “I don’t know if something happened to them, or they’re flat out racist … It was very strange, particularly because my wife and I moved to this community in large part because of this church and the community itself.”

Another man who identified himself only as Joel said he was stopped by police while walking down Church Street at 1 am.

“I’m 54,” he said. “I’m too tired to run. … He said, ‘Where you coming from?’ I said, ‘Back there.’ He said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Down there.’ He said, ‘Well, we’ve had robberies.’ I said, ‘Congratulations. Did you catch them?’ He said, ‘We want to make sure people are where they are supposed to be.’ I said, ‘Did you pass Ponce and Church? Did you see all the drunk white people standing in front of Leon’s?'”

Joel said at one point he asked a Decatur official if there were two sets of laws in the city: one for white people and one for black people.

Decatur’s gentrification process has brought a new wave of affluent, white residents to looking to live in a good school district. There has also been a heightened awareness of crime in the city. Over the March 29 weekend there were two robberies. Police officers recite the mantra to all residents: If you see something suspicious, you’re supposed to “say something” to police.

Decaturish asked Decatur Police Sgt. Jennifer Ross about this in August. Ross, the police department’s public information officer, said that police want residents to focus on behavior, not skin color. Is there a car backing into your neighbor’s driveway that you don’t recognize? Is there a vehicle that you don’t recognize that keeps circling the block? That is the “something” that police want residents to “say something” about, Ross said.

Decatur Police regularly undergo racial sensitivity training, according to the department. Denard said he doesn’t think the training has helped police officers make sound decisions about who to question and why.

“Apparently that training is not adequate,” he said.

The meeting ended with some of those in attendance agreeing to join a working group to develop a document to present to the City Commission. Denard hopes to create a citizens’ oversight committee to ensure that policing in the city is fair to all residents. One specific solution he suggested was for police officers to gather all data about individuals they stop, including statistics like race and gender.

“We want them to file data on every report for all stops that they make,” Denard said. “They say if you want to manage something, you measure it. They probably will not want to do that. We want them to track the stops that they make, indicate what the ethnic background, age and gender was. We’d want them to review it with this community council, this community coalition.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the speakers in some of the quotes. This story has been updated to reflect the correct information. 

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  • Catie

    Thanks for reporting on this! I want Decatur to be a welcoming home to everyone. I think it’s easy to think our lovely little city is some utopia because it’s full of well-meaning, “cultured” (whatever that means) liberals who drive priuses, but it’s clear we still have so much work to do.

  • John C

    Great article, Dan. Thanks for the write-up.

  • James

    I understand that people are upset about being profiled. I would not want to be stopped either. But, what do you want the police to do? The community is crime-ridden by burglars, armed robbers and muggers. Nearly all of these perpetrators are African American, according to the arrest and victim reports. If the police want to stop crime or pre-empt it, they have to make judgment calls about stopping people.
    I’ve been stopped before by police investigating a rape because I happened to be a white male in the area and the victim’s description was a white male. I have been stopped numerous times at DUI roadblocks and pulled over for something else and asked if I had been drinking. One time, the police stopped me and searched my vehicle for “weapons”. I didn’t like it, but they have a tough, dangerous job. Maybe people should not just assume “everyone is a racist” and understand the situation from a law enforcement perspective.
    Should police start stopping white people randomly so they can make the statistics look more fair? How about stopping Asian people in proportion to their relative population of the city? I agree that behavior should be paramount, but most criminals are smart enough not to act like a criminal while the police are looking. So what are people supposed to do?

    • Neighbors, not Criminals

      I believe that the police can legally stop someone because of suspicious behavior, but not because of skin color alone. What’s needed is more training of police on how to pursue truely suspicious activity, not hunches based on skin color, in an atmosphere of increased community pressure to stop crime. Plus neighborhood residents have to be trained on what is truly suspicious activity. A black man walking in his own neighborhood does not fit. By focussing on suspicious behavior, not skin color, the real criminals are more likely to be caught. Profiling is a waste of everyone’s time, not to mention civil liberties.

      • James

        As I understand it, Denard was questioned because the circumstances of his exiting his home were suspicious. The other gentleman was stopped because the police were told he had a gun. That is not the police’s fault. The city found no malicious motive in this stop. Why is this even a continuing issue? Dennard wasn’t shot, arrested or even detained longer than a few minutes. Think about victims of crimes whose lives are destroyed.
        To expect that the police have to be perfect in investigating all crimes or suspicious activity or that they can only apprehend someone when they actually see that person committing a crime is too high a standard. People are going to get stopped and questioned who shouldn’t be stopped and questioned. I wouldn’t like it either, but that is the reality.
        Criminals are approaching people at their homes under the guise of being friendly and robbing them. They are not obvious about it. To accuse the police of being racist when they are not perfect, is unfair and it puts everyone at risk because it puts restrictions on their ability to do their jobs effectively.
        Isn’t it more likely that the police are just trying to stop crime rather than that they are trying to be racists who want to make life miserable for law-abiding Africian Americans?
        Give the police a break and give them your support!

        • Supporter of Both

          People should be able to leave their own home without being considered suspicious. Police can be well-meaning but make mistakes. That’s why they need training on how to pursue truly suspicious behavior and not waste their time on inadvertent and ineffective profiling. Yes, they deserve breaks and support. So do lawful residents of color.

        • YeaRight

          “Denard was questioned because the circumstances of his exiting his home were suspicious”

          How does one exactly exit their home suspiciously?

          “The other gentleman was stopped because the police were told he had a gun. ”

          “Subconscious biases can influence visual processing–so much so that simply viewing a black man’s face increases the speed with which some people identify a fuzzy picture as a gun”

          People, get to know your neighbors…even the ones who don’t look like you.

          “Dennard wasn’t shot, arrested or even detained longer than a few minutes. Think about victims of crimes whose lives are destroyed.”

          Yes, luckily he was not – but he very well could have been or worse. What if Dennard was a younger black male, visiting a relative walking outside with a silver mug? Should black men now resign themselves to only weilding objects that aren’t silver or black, but now only safe colors such as neon pink and yellow? What if the cops had responded hastily or if he made a gesture that made them make a knee jerk reaction. It’s happened countless times before, continues to, and easily could have been a different story. Again, there is a much simpler solution: get to know your neighbors. My neighbors and I all communicate. Some of them are white, some of them are black, some of them are mixed families, some old, retired, working, some young, some single, etc. If someone is going out of town – we simply communicate, send a text, talk over the fence or at the mailbox. We live in an intown neighborhood not as pristine as Decatur and we have had a fairly good track record of not calling the police on eachother. Get to know your neighbors.

          As a homeowner I agree with you, I’ve had friends and family who’ve had their homes broken into – I’ve had to call the police at uncomfortable hours of the night myself – but you’re comparing the loss of property, to the reality that a lot of black men face during interactions with law enforcement: loss of life and or liberty, and at the very least their dignity. You essentially saying “It’s not that bad” is coming from the privileged position of someone who doesn’t have to fear interactions with law enforcement even when you yourself know you’ve done nothing wrong.

          “To accuse the police of being racist when they are not perfect, is unfair…”

          I agree, I think the problem is much deeper and more systemic. I think this points to the bigger issue that people don’t know their neighbors…and “coincidentally” the neighbors they don’t know tend to be black. Police officers should do a better job of learning the residents of communities, and communities (if they truly strive to be such) should strive to know the individuals that comprise them.

  • donnafrob

    As a member in the audience I think this article is very well written and an accurate record of what transpired. Racism in all it’s forms is a complex problem based in deep rooted cultural experiences/biases we all have. Yes, the police need better training and awareness about racial profiling but Decatur’s citizens must accept some of the responsibility if we as a community want to combat this systemic problem. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging one exists so bravo to those who are willing to tackle this.

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