To understand how policing affects the psyche of a community, we explore the story of black business owner in Baltimore who was raided so many times he filed a lawsuit, and won


Story Transcript

[00:00:05] TAYA GRAHAM Welcome to The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network. Today we take a deep dive into an aspect of policing that is often overlooked: how the country’s massive law enforcement complex affects the psyche of a community, and what are the unseen consequences for cities that have bet heavily on policing to solve complex social problems. We will also take a look at how the media bolsters the power of policing by exploring this body cam footage. News organizations billed it as an officer’s life on the line, but never questioned exactly why this encounter happened in the first place, a telling example of how we— the people who report on the behavior of cops— can sometimes omit critical facts, emissions that fail to raise essential questions. My fellow reporter, Stephen Janis, can elaborate. [00:00:51] STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. I mean, Taya, as we’ve talked about many times on this show, and as we talk about and sometimes debate this, you know, one thing that is never really recognized is how policing infiltrates every aspect of our lives. Especially in cities like Baltimore where it is the largest and predominant institution— both through funding and I think in a sense, you know, cultural representation. And often in these stories, we fail to provide a context as to why police have so much power, and how that power really affects us psychologically and in our civic discussions. [00:01:24] TAYA GRAHAM So to talk about this, we’re going to focus on a small raid on a business in Baltimore, and what it tells us about how policing can be so dominant in the psyche of a city, that it becomes in a sense pervasive to the point that we don’t understand how it influences our thinking. [00:02:07] STEPHEN JANIS And why this story came to our attention, Taya, and what was interesting about it was that, you know, it was an effort by the person who is joining us, Sean Weston, to just open a business and maintain a business. And it became this focal point for police activity and pushback from the community, which I think is illustrative of the idea that we were talking about before. [00:02:26] TAYA GRAHAM Now, when we first encountered Sean, when he was trying to open what he said was a community center in northwest Baltimore, it was his way of giving back to the neighborhood where he had done business for nearly three decades, but his plan received pushback from the community. And shortly thereafter, one of his businesses was raided by police and his son was arrested, but what made this raid so extraordinary is that it wasn’t the first time. And to tell that story, we’re going to play a video we put together about what happened, and then talk to Sean, who’s joining us in the studio. [00:03:07] TAYA GRAHAM So Sean, let me ask you a question that is probably on a lot of people’s minds. Some of the products you sell can be used in the [inaudible] business. How do you justify this? [00:03:18] SEAN WESTON Well, there’s no way to justify what a person choose to do once he leave my establishment. All I could do is just put up precautions to protect myself and my employees. And that’s by understanding the law and posting signs stating that my products are not sold for any illegal use, and that’s about the most I can do. But what would a person choose to do with these products once they leave my establishment, I have no control over that. [00:03:56] TAYA GRAHAM Absolutely. It’s as if I went and bought a ski mask from a ski mask store, and I decide to go rob a bank with it. Is it the ski mask store’s fault that I decided to use it in this criminal way? It’s a worthwhile point that you’re making. Now, Stephen, you actually went to talk to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby about the raid that we saw that Sean discussed with us. What did her office have to say about this? [00:04:20] STEPHEN JANIS Well, as we know, and as we mentioned in the package, you know, Sean’s son was charged with distributing large quantities of morphine. I mean, you know, real weight. But it turns out after a lab test that it was not morphine, so they just dropped all the charges summarily. Now, that didn’t stop them from confiscating stuff out of your store or taking money out of the drawer. And I would be curious to know, since this has been announced, and since the State’s Attorney said there was no drugs, has your stuff been returned to you? [00:04:51] SEAN WESTON No. No— [00:04:52] STEPHEN JANIS What were the losses for you? [00:04:56] SEAN WESTON I mean, I’ve lost about, I would say, at least well over $10,000 worth of merchandise. No one knows— [00:05:05] TAYA GRAHAM Wow. [00:05:05] STEPHEN JANIS And they took cash too, right? [00:05:07] SEAN WESTON The cash, it was probably four to five hundred dollars, but they also took cash from out of my son’s bookbag which was his personal money, and he hasn’t received that back either. Again, no one has contacted me. I don’t know if they contacted my attorney, but I haven’t gotten anything back up to this point. [00:05:33] TAYA GRAHAM Sean, let me ask you a question and I know this is sort of speculation, but do you think the officers actually thought it was morphine that they found in your store? Do you really think they thought that? [00:05:45] SEAN WESTON From what my son told me, they were high-fiving and— [laughs] [00:05:50] TAYA GRAHAM Right. And taking pictures, I noticed, in the raid video. [00:05:56] SEAN WESTON Taking pictures and congratulating each other on “we finally got Sean,” and which I couldn’t, you know, really—”Got me on what?” I don’t do anything other than, you know, working around my business. [00:06:08] TAYA GRAHAM So let me follow up with you on this. Your store has been raided in the past. Talk to me a little bit about these other raids and what happened. [00:06:19] SEAN WESTON Most of the raids took place during the late 90s and early 2000s in which it was a series of officers that, I guess, focused on our store. At the time, we were young African American males who, you know, were making a nice amount of money, and we were being flashy with our money— with the cars and jewelry and things of that sort— and I guess that’s what drew that attention to us. But again, once they started investigating and there were no drugs or anything, I guess they started focusing on what we were selling out of our store. So. [00:07:04] TAYA GRAHAM So tell me a little bit about the community center that you proposed. What is it supposed to be? What is it supposed to give back to the neighborhood? [00:07:13] SEAN WESTON Well, it is supposed to give back opportunity, you know, for young guys to maybe get a job. You know, and give them something positive, you know, something structural that they can do in their own community. You know, that’s the whole purpose. It’s supposed to give a safe haven. You know, if any problems are going on in the community, they can come there and discuss it and talk it out. It’s supposed to give seniors the opportunity to get into workshops, you know, learn some new dishes to cook. But again, you know, we were stopped from doing this. [00:07:53] TAYA GRAHAM Now, what’s interesting, Stephen, is you actually attended one of these community meetings. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what happened there? [00:08:00] STEPHEN JANIS Well, you know, as Sean—One of the things that was interesting that Sean had—We had been talking over time and he said that the community association, which Baltimore has a ton of community situations, wouldn’t talk to him and wouldn’t discuss it, but also opposed it. So it was creating problems because he was getting visits from, you know, inspectors and fire inspectors at odd hours. And so, I went to cover the meetings. I thought, okay, Sean was going to go and explain to the community and try to make his case. And I went, and the minute I show up, they’re like, “You can’t be here. You need to leave. You can’t tape it. You can’t record it. You can’t do anything.” It was very hostile, which is really unusual. I’ve covered a lot of community meetings. Community meetings tend to be open to the public, but I think—And Sean can explain this to you better. But then, suddenly in the middle of a community meeting, I would say there was a bit of an argument and it really struck me as generational. The community association was mostly senior citizens and Sean’s supporters are mostly young. And I think Sean can tell you about it a little bit more, but it was very, an interesting dynamic to see the young people saying, you know, “Why aren’t you listening to us?” [00:09:09] TAYA GRAHAM Wow. Wow. Now, Sean, you also talked about how the police sent you a warning that fire inspectors were sent to your place of business? Can you tell me a little bit about why you thought this was a warning and what happened? [00:09:21] SEAN WESTON Well, fire inspectors showed up, you know, at the restaurant, you know, at the time I was trying to turn into the community center. And showed up on a Sunday, which was just a surprise to me. [00:09:37] STEPHEN JANIS It’s pretty late, right? [00:09:38] SEAN WESTON Yeah. In the evening, around five in the evening in which he showed up. And the way he showed up, he showed up kind of hostile in a way. And again, I tried to talk to him in which I told him, “hey, look. Come on in. Let me invite you in because obviously you guys are trying to get in here to see what’s going on.” And I really wanted them to see what I was doing inside. And as I walked them in and I started talking to them and showing them exactly what was going on in there, and at the time, I did not know where all this trouble was coming from. Okay. I’m still not 100% sure where its coming from, but I kept telling him, “The cops are sending you up here. Why do you bother me when I’m trying to get in compliance?” And again, we just started talking and he told me that his boss or supervisor was coming up there to take a look, and two other guys showed up. All three men were African Americans, but the other two guys showed up and they were in civilian clothing. And he asked the Fire Marshall that were in uniform, he said, “so what’s going on here?” He said, “nothing. There’s nothing going on.” He said, “okay, then. Let’s get out of here.” [00:11:08] TAYA GRAHAM Interesting. [00:11:09] SEAN WESTON And the two gentlemen in the civilian clothing, they left. But the Fire Marshal in the uniform, he stayed, and we talked for about 20 minutes. And he again was telling me that he’s for self-based businesses in our community. Again he’s getting the complaints and that’s the reason why he’s there. He was telling me that it’s nothing personal from him, but somebody is complaining. [00:11:43] TAYA GRAHAM And, you know, Stephen, I have a question for you, but I just want to confirm something with you, Sean. Tell me, how many times has your store been raided by police, just the number of times your store has been raided by police officers? Total? [00:11:58] SEAN WESTON Well, in the past, the first store, which was Arundel Variety, that was the first store in which the raids started taking place. That store may have been raided eight to nine times. [00:12:12] TAYA GRAHAM Wow. And each time, you’re losing time because your store can’t be open for business. You’re losing product. You’re losing customers because customers don’t want to go into a store that’s full of police officers— [00:12:22] SEAN WESTON Exactly. It stigmatizes. [00:12:22] TAYA GRAHAM So you’re losing a lot every time a police officer shows up, or every time someone that’s in a position of authority is seen going into your store. How much do you think this is impacting your bottom line? Not just how you feel about it, not the contribution you can give to the city, but how much is this affecting you as a business owner in Baltimore? [00:12:39] SEAN WESTON Well, it impacts me a lot. Again, like you said, financially it impacts me. It stigmatizes me in the community as if I’m doing something wrong. It keeps customers from coming to the store because who will want to come in and purchase a shirt or a hat? And they leave, and then they’re being pulled over by the cops or their door being kicked in. And which, that was occurring. They were following people from our store and raiding their homes. [00:13:15] TAYA GRAHAM That’s terrible. [00:13:16] SEAN WESTON Yes. They were doing this. And again, it was so many times that it happened over and over, and the outcome was the same each time. There was really no convictions in which— [00:13:34] TAYA GRAHAM And the outcome was so obvious that you were actually able to win a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Police Department that showed that there was bias and harassment in the way they kept targeting you, right? [00:13:45] SEAN WESTON Yes. Yes. We finally filed a lawsuit against Baltimore City, the mayor’s office, Baltimore City Police, and Baltimore City Council in which our business was repeatedly targeted so many times and which we did show that pattern, the continuing pattern of the harassment and profiling, and which we were awarded a settlement. It wasn’t a huge settlement, but it did get an admission of guilt. [00:14:26] TAYA GRAHAM Yes, and that’s what matters. [00:14:29] SEAN WESTON It gave an admission of guilt that they were doing something wrong to us. [00:14:33] TAYA GRAHAM Now, Stephen, you had been witnessing this whole process. What have you learned from watching this? [00:14:38] STEPHEN JANIS Well, you know, I think what I’ve learned is that when you look at the raid of the police, right? They knew it wasn’t morphine. I don’t know what Sean thinks, but I know they knew it wasn’t morphine because they confiscated a variety of products which all couldn’t have looked the same. And so, I think what you’re seeing is the business of policing at its most raw in how it interferes with other processes because, number one, these are plainclothes, which is the department which we’ve had terrible problems within the city with the Gun Trace Task Force, which is a group of nine officers who robbed residents, dealt drugs, stole, and it was a plainclothes unit. They go in there. They get their stat. They get their arrest. They get there. They say they did something productive, but here’s where the crux is— it wasn’t productive. There was nothing done there. There was nothing. There was no crime averted or something. Instead, all they did was sow chaos into someone who’s trying to do—You know, I mean, some people will question Sean or his business. But the thing was, he wasn’t dealing drugs. He wasn’t shooting people. He was trying to, you know, take care of his family and take care of his employees. And yet, all they’ve done is create this big freakin’ mess. And that happens, I think, more often in the city that not. It happens quite often. [00:16:27] TAYA GRAHAM And to give us a sense of how policing is able to create this type of simplified narrative, we want to look at body cam footage that has been controversial, and show how the media failed to ask a critical question. The footage shows a traffic stop by a Seminole County Sheriff in Florida. The driver was Rocky Rudolph Jr. and he was pulled over for having tinted windows. Let’s watch what happens. [00:16:56] TAYA GRAHAM Media reported that Rudolph was a convicted felon and dragged the officer 100 ft. He was also shot by the deputy, and is now in custody facing attempted murder charges. So why would we want to talk about a case like this? Why even question what happened? It’s a good question, and the answer is simple— because we never take the time to question the reason for the stop in the first place. We never ask why it’s necessary to waste police resources on tinted windows. Stephen, it’s a good question, isn’t it? [00:17:27] STEPHEN JANIS Well, yeah. Sure. I mean, it’s understandable there would be pushback here, but let’s take—Let’s just think for a second about policing and resources. There are roughly 200,000 murders that are unsolved. Supposedly, you know, if you look at statistics across the country, only 20% of residential or commercial burglaries are solved. And yet, we have a cop pulling someone over for tinted windows when obviously there are all these really, truly destructive crimes. I mean, you know, I don’t know all the vagaries of tinted windows, but to me it’s not a public menace or a threat, especially if the guy’s just minding his own business. Why? Why do we keep pulling over people for very small or insignificant things, and then end up with a gun pointing at someone? I mean, think about how that escalated. How do we as a society justify the use of force in a tinted windows case, regardless of the history of the person who they are attempting to stop? [00:18:22] TAYA GRAHAM You know, it’s also worth noting that a lot of these cases come from such small beginnings— whether it’s Eric Garner selling a few loose cigarettes, or Michael Brown supposedly shoplifting, or Sandra Bland not using a turn signal while switching lanes. And these lead to these horrible cases of death. [00:18:42] STEPHEN JANIS Yeah, I mean, that’s why, you know, I thought we should discuss this because if we don’t start questioning this whole process beforehand, we’re going to keep having these cases. You know, there’s no way you should go from tinted windows to pulling a gun and pointing it at somebody. No way. And then, the smell of marijuana, which we’ve heard over and over again in this city— to the most destructive ends. I can think of so many deadly police chases and deadly police encounters in this city that started with the smell of marijuana. When are we going to get over this, and when are we gonna start asking law enforcement to be more productive in the way it uses its resources? [00:19:43] TAYA GRAHAM So Sean, you’ve watched the video. You know these stories. What do you think? [00:19:49] SEAN WESTON Well, personally, me being the African American male here in the room— [00:20:02] TAYA GRAHAM Yes. [00:20:03] SEAN WESTON Who had been in that same situation time and time and time again, what do I personally think about it? I’ll tell you, what I think is that it comes down to the officer, the individual officer himself, how he views African Americans— sorry, African American males because it’s usually us, the ones mainly being at the receiving end of that bullet. And again, I personally just had a situation in which I was pulled over by a male Caucasian cop in which it totally just took me by surprise, given the outcome of the whole situation in which I know it comes down to the individual. Now this officer could have made a bad situation very worse, but what he chose to do was follow the law. [00:21:23] TAYA GRAHAM That’s good to hear. [00:21:24] SEAN WESTON He followed the law. He didn’t go beyond what the traffic stop was about. My license was suspended. Okay. I made an illegal U-turn. Now, he could’ve pulled me out of the car and search the car because he did smell marijuana. And which, I handed it to him and told him “yes, I was smoking.” Now if he would’ve searched the car, would he have found anything beyond marijuana? No. [00:22:03] TAYA GRAHAM Right. [00:22:04] SEAN WESTON But if I was doing something wrong, it could have been a whole total different situation. But what he chose to do was write me a citation for the illegal U-turn, wrote me another citation for driving on a suspended license— [00:22:25] TAYA GRAHAM Fair enough. [00:22:26] SEAN WESTON And gave me another citation for having a small amount of marijuana in the state of Virginia. [00:22:34] TAYA GRAHAM Also, fair about that. [00:22:34] STEPHEN JANIS Oh, so you were in Virginia? [00:22:35] SEAN WESTON I was in Virginia. I was in Virginia. [00:22:36] STEPHEN JANIS Because, you know, in Baltimore City, our State’s Attorney has said that she will not prosecute any possession of marijuana cases. [00:22:43] SEAN WESTON Now, I’ve had another situation. Now that situation there is an example of how the law is supposed to work evenly for everyone. For everyone. Now, 95% of the other times that I was pulled over by the cops, in which I was doing nothing at all to even be pulled over. Again, tinted windows recently just happened to me. I didn’t make any illegal turns or anything. I even had out-of-state tags in which again, I had to even question myself. Why did the officer pull me over for a tint? You’re a Maryland state officer. [00:23:33] TAYA GRAHAM Good point. [00:23:33] SEAN WESTON When did you become an expert in another state on their tint laws? [00:23:37] TAYA GRAHAM [laughs] It’s a good point. [00:23:40] SEAN WESTON But again, license, registration, and everything was good. He let me go, but again— pulled over, “license and registration? You’re tint. Step out the car.” [00:23:56] TAYA GRAHAM & STEPHEN JANIS Woah. Wow. [00:23:56] SEAN WESTON Yeah. “Step out the car, sir.” “For what? What’d I do? You pulled me over for my tint.” “I’ll let you know. Put your hands behind your back, sir.” [00:24:06] TAYA GRAHAM Oh, I see. So it really does depend on the individual. [00:24:09] SEAN WESTON “Sit down here in the gutter while I search your car.” Now, that’s been the other 90% of the time— [00:24:16] TAYA GRAHAM I see what you’re saying. [00:24:19] SEAN WESTON For no apparent reason. It’s an officer that’s looking for something to lock me up for. [00:24:27] TAYA GRAHAM Right. And you can tell the difference between those two types of officers. [00:24:31] SEAN WESTON Okay. It comes down to the officer. It comes down to the officer. [00:24:32] STEPHEN JANIS But it also comes down to the system that we’ve created— [00:24:35] SEAN WESTON Exactly. [00:24:35] STEPHEN JANIS That gives incentives to officers to make arrests, especially low-level drug arrests, which are simple and don’t take a lot of investigation. Just simple possession, this psychology of possession we have that infiltrates policing to the point where officers are incentivized to pull people over and search your cars because it’s a lot easier than investigating a burglary or a murder, which remain unsolved. So it’s a system that’s incentivized this kind of behavior. And to me, from my perspective as a reporter, the people who suffer from it are people like Sean who get pulled over constantly and— [00:25:05] TAYA GRAHAM Do you think that the officer in the case in the piece of body cam that we showed had any right to pull his gun out on that young man? [00:25:14] STEPHEN JANIS No. No, I don’t think. I don’t think when you consider the consequences. The saying— when you talk to police officers— is, “don’t pull a gun out unless you plan to use it.” So once you pull that gun out, you know, you’re saying, “I’m going to take your life.” Because if you think about it, if you pull a gun out, immediately the person fears for his life. So of course he’s going to drive off or put his hand out. [00:25:34] TAYA GRAHAM Of course. Of course. [00:25:34] STEPHEN JANIS You can’t de-escalate a gun. And, you know, we had that— [00:25:38] TAYA GRAHAM That’s an excellent point. [00:25:38] STEPHEN JANIS Let’s remember the video, and we’ll show this video right now, of the young man who kept his hands out the window when the cop had the gun— [00:25:44] TAYA GRAHAM The whole time. [00:25:45] STEPHEN JANIS You know, because he knew if he moved— [00:25:47] TAYA GRAHAM It could be a death sentence. [00:25:47] STEPHEN JANIS So you can’t—A gun is literally saying, “there’s nothing else I can do except shoot you.” And what sense does that make? You’re talking about an irrevocable decision to take someone’s life on the spot. Why as a country do we tolerate that? Or do we say, “that’s okay you felt a little bit of danger, so you can escalate to fatal force.” The guy wasn’t armed. He was just in his car. If he just stepped back and the guy drove off, get him later. It’s not like they don’t have his license. Why should someone die? And we have to ask the question over and over again, you know, until people stop shooting people. And of course I’m a white male, so it’s not as pressing for me as it is for someone like Sean who is much more likely to be a victim of that. [00:26:28] TAYA GRAHAM Yes. [00:26:29] SEAN WESTON Well, I believe that they give officers too much leeway in which to get away with shooting someone. They give them too much time to get their story together. [00:26:40] TAYA GRAHAM Very true. Yes. The LEOBR [Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights] allows them to do that. [00:26:42] SEAN WESTON Exactly. They give them too much time. And then, the consequences is just— [00:26:46] TAYA GRAHAM They get extra pay, for example. Time off— [00:26:51] SEAN WESTON Right. You get time off with pay. [00:26:54] TAYA GRAHAM & STEPHEN JANIS Yup. [00:26:54] SEAN WESTON You know, you get incentives for shooting someone. And then when you look at the outcome of most police shootings when it comes to have African Americans, they’re never convicted of these shootings when you clearly see— [00:27:08] TAYA GRAHAM Very rarely and even when indicted for them. [00:27:12] SEAN WESTON What happens on camera. You know, so I just think that, you know, the culture of allowing them to get away with it is just too far out there. [00:27:24] TAYA GRAHAM Sean, thank you so much. And thank you, Stephen. Well this is certainly a topic we will continue to cover and discuss. I want to thank our guest, Sean Weston, for joining us today and sharing his personal experience. And I want to thank my host and producer, Stephen Janis, for joining us. And I want to thank you for joining me at The Police Accountability Report for The Real News Network.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.