1 MILLION PEOPLE HAVE VIEWED A VIDEO OF A LOUISVILLE TRAFFIC STOP ON YOUTUBE. MANY SAID IT SHOWS EXACTLY WHY MINORITIES DISTRUST LAW ENFORCEMENT.
Published 7:46 a.m. ET April 4, 2019 | Updated 6:56 a.m. ET April 5, 2019
He was homecoming king at Central High School and had just graduated with several scholarships.
He had never been arrested or in trouble before and had a steady job selling new cars at a major dealership.
But 18-year-old Tae-Ahn Lea is black and lives in Park Duvalle, in Louisville’s West End. And when he borrowed his mom’s car to go get a slushie one day last August, he found himself being pulled over by the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Ninth Mobile Division for the most minor of traffic violations — making a “wide turn” onto another street.
Before he was let go 25 minutes later, he was pulled from his car, frisked and handcuffed. His car was searched by a drug-sniffing dog, then by police officers who went through his wallet and even looked under the lid of his drink for contraband.
He was forced to stand on the street, embarrassed, as traffic drove by, with the cuffs chafing his wrists, as one officer asked him, “Why do you have this negative view towards the police?”
Nearly 1 million people have since viewed a video of the traffic stop on YouTube, and more than 17,000 have commented on it. Many said it shows exactly why minorities distrust law enforcement.
Louisville Metro Police Department bodycam footage of Tae-Ahn Lea during a stop on Aug. 9, 2018.Louisville Metro Police Department video
“Cops have a habit of making citizens enemies for life,” one commentor said.
Police experts who viewed the video for the Courier Journal say that while the stop — except for the frisk — was legal, it was disturbingly disproportionate to the alleged offense and it showed the kind of bad policing that undermines the department’s need to be effective.
LMPD Chief Steve Conrad has said that aggressive policing in high-crime areas reduces violent crime. He declined to comment on Lea’s stop last Aug. 9, citing a pending investigation of the officers involved.
A police stop turns contentious
“Do you know why I stopped you?” Detective Kevin Crawford asked Lea after pulling him over.
Lea had no idea, he said.
“When you turned … you turned in to the far left lane,” Crawford said. “You’re supposed to turn in the right lane.”
Lea, expecting to get a citation, followed orders, even asking for permission to reach into his pocket to get his license. But the officer grabbed him by both wrists and pulled him from the car.
“Mama, they are taking me out of the vehicle,” he cried out to his mother, who had called on his cellphone.
Three times Crawford asked Lea if he had any drugs or weapons. Three times Lea told him no.
Crawford frisked him, though Lea had done nothing to indicate he was “armed and presently dangerous,” as the U.S. Supreme Court requires before such a search.
“Put your hands on the car and spread your feet,” Crawford demanded.
“What are you checking me for?” Lea asked. “I told you I didn’t do anything. … Why’d you f—— took me out of the car?”
“We are allowed to,” Crawford’s partner, Detective Gabe Hellard, said.
“This is some bulls—,” Lea said.
“Quit with the attitude,” Hellard told him. “Stop the clenching-your-fist thing. We’re here for you. There’s a shooting every day. Ain’t nobody been nasty to you at all.”
Police found nothing on Lea, so they asked permission to search the car. Lea declined, as is his right.
Then they brought in a police dog that they said “alerted” them to contraband inside Lea’s mother’s 2011 Dodge Charger, although it is not apparent on the body camera footage from the officers who came to the scene.
But it gave police probable cause to search the car.
And to place Lea into handcuffs.
“You’re not under arrest, but you are not free to go,” Hellard told him. “I’m not going to fight you and I’m not going to chase you. I had to chase some guy last night, and I haven’t recovered from it.”
‘They approach this young man as a threat’
Experts on policing, including some former officers, used words such as “deplorable” and “depressing” to describe the stop.
They said the officers were doing what they were told — trying to find guns in a high-crime area to cut down on violent crime.
But as former Tallahassee Police Department Officer Seth Stoughton, now a law professor at University of South Carolina, puts it, it is “an excellent example of the difference between lawful policing and good policing.”
“They approach this young man as a threat — as a criminal,” said Stoughton. “And that is different than the way we want officers to interact with people.”
The authorities also say traffic stops don’t work as a crime-fighting tool. A study released in November of nearly 2 million traffic stops in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, found they failed to reduce crime in the short or long term.
‘What did you pull him over for?’
Seven minutes had elapsed, but the stop was far from finished.
By now, Lea was handcuffed on a busy street, standing in front of a police cruiser and worried that somebody might see him.
He watched as the police dog jumped from seat to seat and as police tore through the vehicle.
One officer used a plastic crowbar to pry off the cover on the electric window buttons.
A second rifled every item in Lea’s wallet after the dog allegedly showed an interest in it.
“Sir, have you had anything in your wallet like narcotics — anything that could have touched your wallet?” canine officer Jeff McCauley asked.
Lea shook his head no.
His mother, Tija Jackson, a juvenile probation officer and private investigator, arrived at the scene, where the three white officers were holding her son.
“What did you pull him over for?” she asked Crawford, who threatens to take her to jail if she doesn’t stay back. “There is nothing in there. It’s my car.”
“I am the detective who pulled him over,” Crawford said. “He committed a traffic violation. He conducted an improper turn on to 18th Street.
“Luckily for you, ma’am, everything was captured on body camera,” he added.
“Luckily enough for you,” Jackson said.
“Oh, really,” the officer replied.
As the search continued, Hellard tries to engage Lea in conversation.
“Have you been in trouble before?” the officer asked.
“None,” Lea shook his head, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
“Anything as a juvenile at all?” Hellard asked.
No, Lea said.
Hellard asked where Lea works. “You say you sell cars at Oxmoor Ford Lincoln?”
“That’s good money,” Hellard said. “You actually like a car salesman?”