Copyright 1999 Times Mirror Company  
Los Angeles Times


 View Related Topics 


October 25, 1999, Monday, Home Edition

SECTION: Part A; Page 1; National Desk

LENGTH: 1735 words




      Alton White still remembers what apologetic New York police officers said when they set him free: He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On a hot July afternoon, the black star of "Ragtime" on Broadway was arrested in the lobby of his Harlem apartment building, along with five other men. Police were looking for several males suspected of dealing drugs, but they handcuffed everyone in the vestibule and took them down to the local precinct for questioning.

White was held for five hours, even though police quickly determined he had no criminal record, no gun and no drugs on him. He was strip-searched, and told to be quiet when he objected. By the time White was released, he had missed that night's performance--and was so traumatized that he could not return to the show for four more days.

"This kind of stuff happens to black men in America all the time," said White, who is readying a lawsuit against the New York Police Department, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated. "Do you think this would have happened if I was Caucasian? They saw that I was black, they were looking for someone, and that's all these police officers had to know."

Although White and his attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union are discussing a settlement with the city, he says his $ 750,000 lawsuit is not just about money. The soft-spoken actor wants police to implement changes that would prevent such race-based detentions in the future and make individual officers more accountable.

In the weeks since his arrest, the 35-year-old White has become more of a media celebrity than he had ever dreamed. His ordeal alarmed many New Yorkers, and he has been invited to sing "Make Them Hear You"--a rousing song about racial justice from "Ragtime"--at a Broadway fund-raiser for presumed New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton tonight.

White's detention may seem minor in a city that has been rocked by allegations of police cruelty and violence. Three officers were convicted earlier this year in the sodomizing of Abner Louima at a Brooklyn precinct, and four others will go on trial next year for the shooting death of Amadou Diallo--an unarmed West African peddler who was mistaken for a rapist and caught in a hail of 41 bullets as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building.

But the actor's experience is far more typical of the police treatment that minorities say occurs daily in New York and other cities. Indeed, complaints about "racial profiling" by police are heard across America, even though there is little data showing whether the practice is in fact widespread. Such profiling, which is illegal, takes place when officers use race as the chief criterion to stop or arrest minority suspects, instead of specific information about a particular crime.

"Racial profiling poses a great ideological problem in police work--the old question of liberty versus security," said Paul Chevigny, a New York University law professor and author of several books on police behavior. "We all insist on our constitutional rights, and racial profiling is wrong. But we also want the crime rate to keep going down."

In California, Gov. Gray Davis recently vetoed a bill that would have required local police departments to maintain records documenting whether racial profiling is a problem in their daily encounters with citizens. Angering some minority leaders, he said it was wrong to force local departments into such record-keeping procedures, but added that he would order the California Highway Patrol to develop such data over three years.

Data Compiled on Stops and Searches

The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, recently filed a lawsuit against the CHP--alleging that it pulls too many motorists over simply because they are black or Latino. While Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks denies that his department practices racial profiling, police in San Diego, San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco have started their own studies, compiling data on the race of motorists stopped by officers.

As protests grow over the practice in New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and other states, President Clinton has directed federal law enforcement agencies to collect data on the race, ethnicity and gender of people they stop and search.

But some experts question whether racial profiling is that much of a problem, given the fact that police can legally use race as one of several key factors in the identification and arrest of criminal suspects. Amid the pressures and dangers of police work, they say, it's hard to draw the line between officers who use race as a legitimate tool and those who abuse it, said Robert Loudon, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Law in New York and a 25-year veteran of the city's police force.

"You can't go out and arrest a lot of green people, let's say, just because green people may commit a large number of crimes," he said. "You need specific facts, case by case, and I think that most police in this country do respect that."

Nowhere has the issue triggered more angry debate than in New York, where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has emphatically denied that police engage in racial profiling. If officers stop and frisk a disproportionate number of minorities, he says, it is because victims have alerted them to the ethnicity of suspects. The mayor has defended 1998 statistics showing that more than 83% of the 27,000 "stop and frisk" incidents recorded by a special police unit involved minorities.

"It's crime victims who tell the Police Department who it should be looking for," he told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at a New York hearing earlier this year. "The Police Department does not select its suspects, and it doesn't select the places it looks for suspects--victims do."

But sometimes the system breaks down. If West Coast minorities have coined the ironic phrase DWB--"driving while black"--to illustrate their vulnerability, White's story might well be the New York equivalent of "standing while black."

He recalls that police told him they were looking for two Latino men, ages 17 to 21, when they burst into his building. The Broadway actor is clearly in his mid-30s. Even after neighbors implored police to let White go, saying that he was a peaceful resident, officers insisted on arresting him.

Although White's neighborhood has its share of crime, it is not one of the city's most violent. Last month, officers made 41 arrests in the 33rd Precinct, compared with 123 arrests in
East New York's 75th Precinct, easily the city's most dangerous community, according to police statistics. While New York's murder rate is up this year, the 33rd Precinct had a decline in other crimes, with rape down 35.1% compared with last year, felony assault down 15.8% and drug arrests down 6.7%.

Giuliani has heralded the city's 54% drop in crime over the past six years, but White's story rekindles an old debate: How much of the decrease comes at the expense of civil liberties?

"They say we should be happy because crime is going down in
New York, but I don't feel safer in my home after what happened," said White. The actor considers his experience a racial wake-up call. Yet it's also a case of life imitating art.

In "Ragtime," White plays Coalhouse Walker, a jazz pianist who is abused by white racists and believes he will get justice from the police and courts. He is humiliated and rebuffed by the system, and eventually becomes an anarchist.

"Days after the event, I realized, 'Oh, man, this is what I'm doing on stage, this is the same story,' " White said. "Coalhouse believed he would be treated with dignity, and it shattered him when he saw they were treating him like dirt."

On the afternoon of July 16, White was preparing to work out at a gym, then deposit his paycheck, meet an old friend and hustle down to the theater in time for an
8 p.m. curtain. As he neared the front door in the lobby, he saw six officers rushing toward the building. He opened the door for them, thinking they might have come to help an ailing elderly tenant.

Seconds later, he was on his knees, handcuffed, facing the wall. He tried to tell police who he was, wanting to believe they would free him as soon as they realized their mistake, but White says they ignored him. The officers were looking for drug dealers and quickly arrested two Latino men in the lobby, who later were found to have drugs. Because White was at the scene, police told him, they were arresting him and three other men who also just happened to be there.

For several hours, officers questioned him at the precinct, repeatedly searching his backpack. He began weeping when they ordered him to take off his clothes in a small bathroom and to squat for a strip-search. White could barely contain his anger when he realized that he would miss that night's performance.

Police Apologize for the Incident

"They didn't care," he said. "And the funny thing is, they were very polite, saying this was all a matter of standard procedure. It was very cut and dried, it was their policy."

Hours later, after White's colleagues alerted the media, police spokeswoman Marilyn Mode apologized for the incident, saying the actor had been wrongly arrested.

She explained, however, that White and the three other black men arrested had fit a resident's description of the drug dealers; she said that police had found a kilogram of cocaine in the lobby and two other men were charged with criminal possession. Mode added that strip-searching was routine procedure in felony drug cases.

"If that's standard procedure, we're all in trouble," said Tommy Hollis, a black "Ragtime" cast member who said White has been devastated by the experience. "As a black man, you learn that, until proven otherwise, you're a potential thug in the eyes of this country. You could be wearing a very nice three-piece suit, but you're still a potential thug."

For White, the upbeat, confident man who opened the door to police is gone forever. Whether he gets justice--or is treated like the character he plays on stage--remains to be seen.

"The cops told me I was in the wrong place, and I live here," White said, still in disbelief. "Something's got to change, because the minute you finish this interview with me, I could walk out on the street--and the whole thing could happen again."

 LOAD-DATE: October 25, 1999