“You Don’t Belong Here:” Sheriffs Profile Reporter

Me as I usually appear on my bike. (Photo: Sarah Nikolovska)

“Hi,” said a terse voice to my left.

I turned my head to see a Sheriffs’ car rolling slowly down 92nd Street in Watts with me.

The white deputy in the passenger seat who was sizing me up appeared highly displeased with whatever conclusion she had come to.

They are way too close, I thought.

Something was up.

“Do you need something?” I asked, figuring it was best to get right to it.

“No, we’re just saying ‘Hi,'” she said.

“Bullsh*t does not become you,” I thought, as the car swerved suddenly for the cur without warning, cutting me off and surprising the hell out of me. Had I been going any faster, I might actually have flipped my bicycle over their front end.

The white deputy got out and began aggressively firing questions as she moved closer to me.

“What are you doing here?”

“Are you on parole?”

“Are you on probation?”

“Have you ever been arrested?”

“Are you sure you’ve never been arrested?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Do you have any identification?”

“What are you doing here?”

Her level of aggression was so wildly disproportionate to the situation that it took me a second to get my head in the game.

My first thought was, “You can’t possibly be serious.”

She was so aggressive, in fact, I involuntarily laughed when she asked me if I had ever been arrested. It was like being verbally assaulted by a really bad actor in a terrible B movie. Who was clearly pulling from the exact same script every victim of profiling I had ever interviewed told me they used. And who was armed.

She was not amused.

Her hand was now on her belt, near her service weapon. Her partner (a Latina) had gotten out of the car and was standing behind her, off to my left.

Sh*t was getting real.

When you are in a confrontation where the one of the parties is armed and it isn’t you, you get this strange kind of tunnel vision. You’re afraid to look away from the aggressor because you don’t know what they are going to do next. You don’t see badge numbers, you don’t see name plates, you don’t see anything happening around you. As so many have described, you instead lock in to a high-stakes mental chess game in which all you can think about is how to move slowly and convince them you’re non-threatening while standing your ground and not exacerbating the situation.

“Why are you stopping me?” I asked calmly. “What’s your ‘probable cause’?”**

The questions kept coming.

What was I doing there? Could I show her some identification?

I calmly protested I had every right to be there, that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and asked again for them to tell me what cause they had to stop me.

“What are you doing here?”

“I never said anything about crack!” the Sheriff Deputy said.

Figuring I would just get to the heart of what I believed the stop was about, I laughed and told her, “You know, I’m not here to buy crack…”

Throwing up her hands in her best, if completely unintentional, Neil deGrasse Tyson impression, she said, “I never said anything about crack!”

B*tch, please, I desperately wanted to say. We all know why we are standing on this street corner.

“Look,” I finally pulled the press card after realizing this could take an ugly turn at some point soon – a privilege too many folks of color do not have. “I’m a journalist and I’m here to interview someone.”

“I have every right to be here. Why are you stopping me?”

Now it was the Latina officer’s turn to throw up her hands deGrasse Tyson-style and start backing away from me.

“Ma’am, ma’am, if you would just let us explain. You look like you don’t belong here. Which means there are only two reasons you are here. Either you are lost, in which case we need to explain to you that it is not a safe place for you to be. Or, you are here for a bad reason.”

I wanted to pull out my voice recorder and say, “Please tell me again exactly how you feel about this community that you are paid to protect and serve.”

Instead I said angrily, “I know this community. I’ve been working in this community for almost two years.”

Still backing up, the Latina officer said that now that they knew why I was there, everything was fine and we could all go on our way.

And with that, they were gone.

“Now you know how we feel,” laughed every single black person in Watts that I spoke to later that afternoon. “We go through this every day.”

They knew I was aware of what life was like for them, how often this happened, and how unlikely it was that they would be able to walk away from such an encounter so easily. But they couldn’t help but be amused both that I got a taste of what they go through and that the Sheriffs saw me as such a troublesome presence.

Even one of the LAPD officers patrolling the area shook his head sadly when I told him the story. He acknowledged that people in Watts really hated the Sheriffs and said there was no call for any officers to be aggressive with people that way.

There really isn’t.

Given the testimony of those I’ve interviewed on the subject over the past several years, it is precisely that aggression that makes law enforcement the enemy instead of an ally in embattled communities like Watts.

There is no reasonable conversation that can be had when someone is on the offensive, assailing you with questions that imply you are guilty of some unspecified but surely evil deed. Especially when that is the baseline for the interaction.

If someone like me – an outsider who has the privilege to demand that my rights be respected – can be shamelessly harassed that way, it’s not hard to see just how much more vulnerable disadvantaged community members are to mistreatment and more, something that bears out in all the stories I’ve gathered (see here, here, here, here, here, or here). Especially when the officers express such overt disdain for the very communities and people they are paid to protect and serve.

There are good officers out there.

I’ve met them.

And I can see how the difference in their relationship with the community improves their ability to police the area and be of service to residents.

But those officers are unfortunately the exception, not the norm.

Our communities deserve better.

* * * *

*“Reverse,” used in the original title link, refers to the fact that, upon learning I was a journalist, officers claimed to be concerned about my safety and that others (read: other people of color) might be a threat to me. It also refers to the officers’ stated belief that only people who looked a certain kind of way would ever have any reasonable excuse for being in the neighborhood.

**“Probable cause” is the wrong term, as a few commenters have pointed out below. The correct term would have been “reasonable suspicion.”

  • Absolutely file a complaint.

  • kerry

    A friend went to Watts to see the Towers. She was “escorted” to and from by cops. Who were worried about her safety, supposedly.

    Another example of the “you don’t belong here” mentality. How can anybody tell who “belongs” in any given neighborhood?

  • patrick

    What a coincidence. Stop & frisk was just ruled unconstitutional.

  • Jimbo

    Sadly, this is more the rule rather than he exception in many communities. The police have a difficult job to do. I understand that. But so many I’ve encountered are such bullies. Sometimes it feels like they’re just another street gang.

  • True Freedom

    Hopefully you got the officers’ names and/or badge numbers.

    You know, people of color do not have a monopoly on this type of treatment.

    I’m a forty something white male, highly educated, income in the 1%, and a homeowner in an exclusive neighborhood. I’m into extreme sports, so often I do not dress or look like most folks in my demographic. There have been times when police have questioned me when I look out of place, when people have locked their car doors around me, when ladies have crossed to the other side of the street, etc.

    However, from the sounds of your story, these officer’s actions are completely unacceptable.

  • Adrian Yuen

    thing I was wearing all lycra when I rode to the Watts Towers from
    Eagle Rock in June, evidently I “belonged”… (I’m an Asian male) and I
    rode mostly on San Pedro and Avalon… I saw my share of badges, but no
    one stopped me (I guess I didn’t fit the profile?)…

  • You keep repeating protect and serve like it’s some kind of magical incantation that if you just say it enough times will be true. The fact is, the Supreme Court has already ruled in 2005 that law enforcement does not have a Constitutional duty to protect from harm even a vulnerable woman with a restraining order against her attacker. See also Castle Rock v. Gonzales URL here.

  • riffic

    Being subjected to these sorts of fishing expedition-style interactions with deputies is completely unreasonable. The level of standard for a terry stop, btw is a much lower “reasonable suspicion”, not the “probable cause” required for a search or arrest. A way to quickly determine if your interaction was consensual in nature would have been to ask “Am I being detained, or am I free to go?” To justify an arrest or detention “specific and articulable facts” are needed.

  • sahra

    true, and i actually know that. but when you are being assailed, your brain gets a little stuck and you don’t think clearly. especially if you are on your own. and, i suspected she might try to search me, as she was getting awfully close, so I knew she would know what I was saying, even if the words weren’t coming out of my mouth quite right. and, even though there are technically things you can say that should get you out of that situation, as you suggest, they don’t always work. if would have tried to move away after getting confirmation i wasn’t being detained, it was clear that i would have been in trouble. and that their excuse would have been that i was behaving suspiciously when all they were trying to do was say hello (as my first exchanges with the white deputy seemed to indicate). so, you’re not always as free to exercise your rights as you should be, which is what they count on when they stop youth of color. and since they tend to shoot first and ask questions later in Watts, i decided verbal sparring was the safest approach.

    i’m glad it happened in that it confirms everything anyone i’ve ever interviewed has told me about how these stops go down. i knew they were telling me the truth, but it is something else to have confirmation i can file a formal complaint with.

  • sahra

    Yeah, that’s my bad. i’m confusing their motto with that of the LAPD. But you have to admit, it’s a bit snappier than their current mission, which they are also not upholding particularly well:

    “Lead the fight to prevent crime and injustice. Enforce the law fairly and defend the rights
    of all, including the incarcerated.
    Partner with the people we serve to secure and promote safety in our communities.”

    I don’t think the motto has any particular magical properties, unfortunately. But I do think we have a responsibility to call them out on it when it is not upheld. Right now, so few people feel comfortable stepping forward to make complaints (fearing retaliation or that nothing will come out of it), that even though everyone knows profiling happens, it is still hard to track on paper, which is part of the reason that change is so slow. I personally feel the burden should be on law enforcement to be less racist, but without a critical mass of people coming forward to complain, I am not sure how more concrete change is going to happen.

  • guttersnipe

    Explain “escorted”

  • Dave Snyder

    Wow. What a great article. Thanks for sharing. I think you *should* be offended for being stopped, and offended on behalf of everyone stopped that way. But don’t let it wear you down that’s for sure. That shit’s toxic.

    Terrible reality we live in and I’m glad your story might reach some people who wouldn’t see this. I have a very short fuse for that kind of abuse so it’s a good thing it rarely happens to me. Thinking about this topic the other day, it occurred to me that if I were black and I had to put up with that stuff a great deal I would be in serious trouble; I would not restrain myself well. And I’d get beat up and thrown in jail and maybe have a record, etc. I’d probably carry a huge chip on my shoulder all the time.

    As a semi-aside, another example of racial mistreatment at the hands of cops was at the core of one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen: Fruitvale Station. For transportation people it’s a must-see.

  • sahra

    Well, I’m not offended for myself. I find the abuse of authority very troubling because of what it means for a community that I really love. Male youth of color in Watts and across the city are raised to think this practice is “normal” because they are stopped so regularly starting in their early teens. (I explain how that works here, in an article where I interviewed over 50 youth about their experiences and reactions to getting profiled: http://la.streetsblog.org/2013/04/30/a-tale-of-two-communities-new-security-measures-at-usc-intensify-profiling-of-lower-income-youth-of-color/)

    So, they are groomed into not fighting back because they know they will lose every time. Officers have tactics that provoke the kids –twisting their arms behind them or making them put their hands on the hot hood of a car– that give the officers an excuse to take the kids in for “resisting” or they give them bogus tickets (for not having lights on their bikes at 9 in the morning). Those kids know the system is against them. THAT is deeply offensive to me.

  • Anonymous

    What a horrible and helpless situation. Not to get all wonky, but for the sake of terminology clarification, the officer didn’t need probable cause to detain you. Probable cause would be required for the officer to arrest you. What she needed was the broader legal standard known as “reasonable suspicion.”

    By definition, reasonable suspicion is a set of facts or circumstances
    that would lead a person of normal care and prudence (ie. an officer) to
    determine that a person stopped may be or have been involved in
    criminal activity.

    So for example, say they’re on patrol and they see a subject walking with a can of spraypaint in their hand heading down the street away from fresh tag a half-block behind them, the officer’s have reasonable suspicion to detain that subject, question him or her and either develop probable cause and arrest, or if not, release.

    Having said all that these deputies didn’t have reasonable suspicion in elevating what started as a “consensual encounter” with you — “We’re just saying hi” — to a detention where you were clearly not free to leave.

    The sad thing is, if the officer had simply demonstrated common courtesy and decency, and asked you respectfully if you wouldn’t mind stopping and talking to her for a few moments, chances are you would’ve agreed to do so and the same result could’ve been achieved without all the anxiety (or at least most of it) or feeling of being victimized.

  • calwatch

    Interesting officer dynamic, though – that these deputies were women and made these type of comments in such an aggressive way to another woman. Definitely, file a complaint. Even though this article will probably make the County newswire (press clippings) tomorrow morning.


    I will say that the suburban sheriff bureaus are friendlier to people of all races. Higher crime areas tend to either get adrenaline junkies or people that want to do their three or four years before they get an assignment in San Dimas or Santa Clarita.

  • sahra

    Yes, someone else made that clarification for me below, and, as I told them, I did actually know that. But your mind goes blank when someone comes at you that aggressively and it isn’t until afterwards that you think of all the things you should have said at the time and kick yourself for not having gotten them out… Ah well. I’ll be more prepared for the next time I am somewhere I don’t “belong.”

  • No fault of the journalist and citizen reporting being involved in this, but when has Streetsblog ever covered Stop & Frisk, especially in NYC of course? And especially now, as every better street activist’s favorite boss of Janette Sadik-Khan just had unConstitutional b.s. called on his tyrannical tuchus. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/13/nyregion/stop-and-frisk-practice-violated-rights-judge-rules.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • sahra

    I’ve mentioned it in previous articles, but since my beat is local to LA and convincing people it does go on here to the extent and with the aggression that it does, despite it not being an explicit policy with a catchy name, is not always easy. And LA is very, very different from NY in many ways. So, I’ve kept my focus to what I know. I see profiling as having a powerful impact on the freedom with which youth of color in lower-income areas can access their own streets and move through their neighborhoods — so that’s a livable streets issue to me. I don’t know how the NYCSB folks view the policy there… but you’re more than welcome to ask.

  • Thanks. It is definitely not a Livable Streets issue to most. There is a huge disconnect between Bloomberg (and Sadik-Khan) and Bloomberg (and NYPD Chief Ray Kelly). From Livable Streets people he gets praise for the former but rarely criticism for the latter, even when it is so obvious that he should.

  • Nathanael

    The reason bad police departments get away with this stuff is that most of the people they harass don’t have the *resources* to file the complaints, file the lawsuits, and generally nail them for it. If you’ve got the resources, by all means do so. It may have an effect.

  • Nate

    I’m curious if it would be helpful to develop a kind of laminated card that people in places like Watts could carry that would guide them through these situations. I know exactly what you mean when in anxious situations it is hard to think clearly enough to assert your rights. The card could even have a short script of things to ask, like: “Can I have your badge# please?” “Can you tell me what your probable cause is?” Or perhaps something even more assertive: “Can you ask your questions in spot where your mounted camera will be able to record us?”

    Obviously, if your hands are behind your back you can’t consult a card, but it seems some kind of added information would be one way of flipping the power dynamic. I was driving around Watts a month ago, exploring the smaller streets, and I happened to see a Sheriff’s car immediately pull up in front to a group of young black kids walking down the street. Without even being told, the boys just immediately went to the fence and put their hands up. A conditioned response, no doubt.

    One last thing: More people from other parts of LA need to check out Watts and spend time there- the same way someone might devote a day to going to Venice. Buy lunch somewhere in Watts and picnic in the park or at Watts Towers. It not to be uncommon to see white and Asian people walking around Watts. I’ve walked around the area near the 103rd blue line station a few times with my one-year old and three-year-old, and it is full of great people and interesting things to do. I even got lost on my first visit getting from the 103rd blue line station to Watts Towers, and a group of men hanging around a liquor store were very helpful in getting me back on track.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry I didn’t see the earlier comment. Hopefully you won’t kick yourself harder than the deputies involved do after they’re made to deal with your rightful complaint. While It’s always good to know your rights (and completely understandable when you mix them up a bit under such stressful circumstances), the difference is it’s the deputies’ are not only supposed to know them too, but it’s their sworn responsibility to uphold them.

  • james

    Several people, all caucasians, have told me that they were questioned and escorted out of Watts by law enforcement. All had intended to visit the towers or that famous hamburger joint.

    I wonder if Andrew Zimmern’s visit to two Watts restaurants won’t increase the number of non-locals visiting to eat and result in more reports of this sort of racial profiling.

    I’ve only ridden through on the blue line and have noticed that the Sheriff deputies never bother to even look at my metro ticket, but scrutinize the tickets of non-caucasians.

  • Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that you are calling out this kind of behavior. I hope you get some kind of acknowledgment but even if you don’t, you’re still making the public aware of the behavior, which, I think absolutely needs to happen. It’s just that ppl should also know that the police are not our friends or working for us. I’m seeing more and more stories about sociopathic behavior perpetrated by those in law enforcement that receives a wink and a nod rather than disapproval and sanctions. Reflective of the overall contempt the plantation owners have for anyone who isn’t a millionaire. The cops aren’t working for anyone but the 1% and they are too sociopathic/stupid to realize it.

  • Erick Huerta

    I literrally laughed out loud on this one

  • Anonymous

    what’s the crime rate in Watts? Is it bad enough to warn people?

  • sahra

    I don’t know that the crime rate matters, because they did not stop me to warn me about it. The stop was very aggressive and I was clearly seen as a nuisance and potential criminal… because, of course, criminals tend to ride around conspicuously on road bikes in cut-off jeans through areas where they are the only ones dressed like that for miles. They only mentioned warning me about potential dangers once they heard I was a journalist and realized just how much trouble that might cause them.

    That said, it isn’t the first time I’ve been profiled that way. Usually, it is male officers that follow me in their cars for a few blocks or ride alongside me slowly, eyeing me up to see if I look like I might be out to buy drugs. Apparently I do not look like a crackhead because usually they end up just waving and smiling and moving on.

    The reason for the profiling is that outsiders really are a rare sight in the area, unfortunately. So, I’m not surprised by it. But it is sad that officers have such a poor opinion of the area. If they got out of their cars more often and spoke casually and kindly with residents on a regular basis, they might have a better understanding of who the troublemakers were and who the good folks were who were just trying to get by. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out in the housing projects of late and I can tell you it isn’t too hard to figure out who is who. And even those “troublemakers” are often decent people who have no other means of getting by, but who could be turned with some kind words, a strong role model, and a helping hand. If the officers spent more time building ties with the people they are supposed to be protecting, they would actually find their jobs were much easier.

  • Anthony Costa

    The cops did what they were trained to do, which we allow them to do by electing politicians who refuse to change policies. Gender/skin color aren’t that relevant; it’s about power, and how society allows it to be delegated. Cops are trained to look for crime at all times, in every situation, and develop a suspicious mind regarding their interactions with the public, which is harmful for all parties involved. What we need in our society is a sea change in how we deal with poverty, and you were another victim of flawed policies in which police use heavy-handed tactics in trying to interact with the public. Too many cops and not enough social workers out there; save the cops for violent crime and fewer shakedowns/frisks.


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