A Los Angeles County sheriff’s traffic stop, allegedly conducted for excessive window tinting, led to a fishing expedition that stranded an innocent passenger at night without her phone, wallet, keys, or transportation. But cop watchers @laurasharkcw, @tomzebra, and @jodiekatmedia appeared on the scene to hold LASD accountable and to assist the stranded passenger. This week on the Police Accountability Report, hosts Taya Graham and Stephen Janis speak with Tom and Laura about the encounter and discuss what this case reveals about the phenomenon of overpolicing and the incentive structure behind the questionable allocation of police time and resources.
Production: Stephen Janis, Taya Graham
Post-Production: Stephen Janis, Adam Coley
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible.
And today we will achieve that goal by showing you this supposedly routine traffic stop that cops were trying to turn into an arrest until something unexpected happened: an attempt by cops to an entangle and innocent motorist in the criminal justice system that led to an outcome so unexpected we dedicated an entire show to sharing this story with you, our viewers.
But before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at email@example.com, or you can reach out to me at Facebook or Twitter @tayasbaltimore, and we might be able to investigate for you.
And please like, share, and comment on our videos. It helps us get the word out and can even help our guests. And of course, you know I read your comments and appreciate them. You see those little hearts down there. And we have a Patreon called Accountability Report, so if you feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is truly appreciated. All right, we’ve gotten all that out of the way.
Now, if there is one golden rule about holding police accountable, it is this: record, record, and always record. Certainly, most of the stories featured in our show are the result of that adage. I couldn’t do my job as a reporter if not for cell phones, body cameras, and surveillance footage that allows us to show, not tell, you how and why police behave badly.
And there is no better example of what I mean than the video I am showing you now. It depicts a car stop by a Los Angeles County sheriff, who stopped a motorist for reasons that seem questionable at best, but then tried to prolong the encounter even though there appeared to be little justification to do so. But it is what happened when a pair of citizen journalists showed up at the scene and turned their cameras on police that speaks to the so-called rule I just cited, namely, always record.
Now, this story starts in Los Angeles, when a resident named Darius was driving home. That’s when a Los Angeles County sheriff pulled him over, allegedly for driving with tinted windows. Just watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Darius: Why are you doing this? I know my law. No, no.
Brianna: Listen, listen.
Darius: From court, you’re going to get sued. You don’t know who I am. Yeah, I do not consent. Can you let go of me?
Police Officer: No.
Darius: I do not consent. I’m detained.
Brianna: Sir, can you –
Darius: Am I being arrested?
Brianna: Sir, can you –
Darius: What am I detained for?
Brianna: [Crosstalk] Sir, can you please just go run his name? He doesn’t consent to getting out the car or anything.
Darius: I’m not even doing anything.
Brianna: He didn’t do anything. He just doesn’t consent to…
Darius: I do not consent to you touching me. [Crosstalk] I’m letting you know that right now. I do not consent to you touching. I’m detained? [Crosstalk from walkie talkie] For what? Traffic violation do not have… Listen, marijuana is legal. It’s California.
Police Officer: Marijuana is illegal to have inside your car.
Darius: Yes, and [inaudible]. I have not been smoking.
Police Officer: Okay, why’s it smelling in the car?
Darius: It’s right here. It’s legal in California.
Police Officer: So you’re now being detained, pending a DUI investigation.
Darius: It’s not –
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now setting aside for the moment the question of why police continue to pull over people for dark windows when allegedly there is a nationwide shortage of cops, this particular officer, apparently undeterred by the trivial nature of the so-called crime, quickly escalated the encounter. Just watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Brianna: Fix-it ticket for… This is how he talks all the time [crosstalk].
Darius: [Crosstalk] …Making fun of how I talk…
Brianna: I’m saying this is just a fix-it ticket for the windows, then we can do that. But he’s doing too much. He’s doing way too much.
Officer Gonzalez: [Crosstalk] Can I talk for a second?
Darius: Yeah. You holding my hand still. I do not consent.
Brianna: And can you please let go of him as well.
Darius: I do not consent. Listen, traffic ticket do not consist of searching my car. It consists of a ticket. You holding me out my car.
Officer Gonzalez: We’re not searching your car.
Brianna: Why you holding his arm?
Darius: You’re holding me on my wrist.
Police Officer: Because I need to conduct a DUI investigation.
Darius: So do that. Don’t have nothing.
Brianna: But you can let go of his arm, then.
Darius: I’m in a [inaudible] bro. Hey, listen.
Officer Gonzalez: Can I talk for a minute now?
Darius: I do not consent of this. I’m letting you know y’all going to get sued for grabbing me like this. What’s your badge number? What’s your name?
Police Officer: 6094.
Darius: What’s your name? What’s your badge number too?
Officer Gonzalez: 1065, Gonzalez. There’s marijuana in here. Smells strongly like marijuana, like somebody has been smoking. I’m not saying it was you, and I’m not saying it was you, right? However, we do have to conduct an investigation.
Darius: That don’t have nothing to do with this. [Crosstalk] With grabbing my wrist. You still got your hand on my wrist.
Officer Gonzalez: Smoking marijuana and driving is illegal. You understand that?
Brianna: That’s how it comes from where we get it from. We just picked it up.
Officer Gonzalez: Are you going to let us do our investigation so we can get out of your way?
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: That’s right. You heard it. Since the window gambit wasn’t paying off, the cop quickly turned to a gotcha phrase. That is, one of the so-called law enforcement’s go-to excuses for bypassing our Constitution. It’s a pretext only rivaled by these similarly ubiquitous stop resisting mantra, namely the smell of marijuana. Take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Brianna: You guys also have to understand he went too far. He could have told him…
Darius: This don’t have to consist of [inaudible].
Officer Gonzalez: He’s going to do it in a second. Just give him a minute, all right.
Darius: I don’t consent with searching my car.
Officer Gonzalez: No one’s going to search your car.
Darius: Being ready [inaudible].
Officer Gonzalez: No one’s going to search your car.
Darius: I have a lawyer. I don’t consent. I have a lawyer.
Officer Gonzalez: No one’s going to search your car.
Darius: I have a lawyer [inaudible].
Officer Gonzalez: No one’s going to search your car.
Darius: Yeah, I’m young. Yeah, you messing one of them.
Officer Gonzalez: He’s going to do a test.
Police Officer: Check the car out.
Officer Gonzalez: [Others talking in background] Is he your boyfriend?
Brianna: Yes he’s my boyfriend.
Officer Gonzalez: He’s going to do a test and then we’re out of here.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now, as we’ve discussed on this show many times, there is no more corrosive concept when it comes to extinguishing our rights than the odor of pot. I mean, it has been used so often by cops as the go-to pretext for unwarranted searches that it almost seems like we need a constitutional amendment to preclude it.
And just an aside, I sometimes wonder how those cops who allegedly don’t partake in it have such a refined olfactory ability to identify it. They seriously seem like connoisseurs akin to the human version of THC bloodhounds. Let’s not forget, just a few weeks ago we showed you this video of a cop who used the smell of marijuana to search a car while a man was walking a dog. Remarkably, he was able to detect it through a closed car door.
So, armed with the Fourth Amendment extinguishing odor of pot and, of course, the now unleashed ability to make the motorist’s life miserable, this particular Los Angeles County sheriff starts to initiate the process of an arrest – That is, until two cop watchers arrived on the scene. Namely, the legendary duo of Tom Zebra and Laura Shark. Anyone who follows the cop watcher community is quite familiar with their work. They’re both tireless and unflinching in their ongoing efforts to curb police abuse. And no case of police overreach exemplifies the importance of the role in doing so than what happened next – Because the officer took the cell phone away from the passenger who was filming the encounter. Just watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Brianna: Okay, but why do I have to get out the car if you’re not searching anything?
Officer Gonzalez: Because I need to take you out of this car so we can do our investigation.
Brianna: So you are searching?
Officer Gonzalez: No one’s saying anything about searching for anything.
Brianna: So I can roll the windows up and close the door and take his keys and that’s fine?
Officer Gonzalez: Absolutely not. No. You’re not reaching for anything.
Brianna: So can you roll all the windows up and give me the keys then? Does he have his keys?
Officer Gonzalez: Nope. Hands do not reach for anything, because at this point I don’t know what’s in his car.
Brianna: I’m not reaching for anything [crosstalk].
Officer Gonzalez: Now you’re making me nervous.
Brianna: Well you’re saying I’m making you nervous, but what I’m saying is you’re sitting up here talking about some, I gotta get out the car. What investigation are you doing then, if he said he doesn’t want his car to be searched?
Officer Gonzalez: It has nothing to do with his car being searched [crosstalk], all right?
Brianna: Okay, so you just need me to get out.
Officer Gonzalez: I’m going to have to step out of the car.
Brianna: Okay, that’s fine. I can do that.
Officer Gonzalez: I’m going to make sure you don’t have a gun on you, all right?
Brianna: Okay. That’s fine.
Officer Gonzalez: Get out the car for me. Face away from me when you do so. Face away from me. Stay there. Release your fingers. I’ll give it back to you.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So you can see clearly how important it was to have another set of cameras on the scene provided by the cop watchers, Tom and Laura. Without them there to continue filming on behalf of the motorists, the full truth of how their rights were violated might’ve never been known. Just watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tom Zebra: [Distant shouting] It sounds like we got here just in time, huh?
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: And then suddenly, with our cop watching duo on the scene, the dynamics of the stop shifted in an instant. The police officer, seemingly comfortable with bending the law to book a stat, was not so sure of himself. Just watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tom Zebra: The guy in the backseat, sounds like he’s a little bit unhappy [traffic in background]. Is this a traffic stop?
Officer Gonzalez: Sure is.
Tom Zebra: How does a traffic stop always turn into a search?
Officer Gonzalez: I don’t like putting other people’s businesses out there. I think that if you want to ask him anything, you could ask him after the traffic stop.
Laura Shark: Ain’t that about a bitch when you don’t find shit, huh? Yeah. Think about it. Ponder it. How am I going to walk away from this empty handed? Just deal with it. Accept it [laughs]. He’s having a moment. This is embarrassing [laughs][car honks]. Right? That’s what I said. Oh wait, I didn’t check his other part of the butthole, hold on [laughs].
Brianna: Over and over and over and over. I need my stuff. Because I knew I needed my stuff. I’m like, wait, let me make sure I have my phone. All my shit just in case this bullshit, and this is what y’all do. And then you’re sitting here looking at me like you don’t care.
Tom Zebra: They don’t. Obviously they don’t care.
Brianna: You have no soul. That’s why you looking at me.
Speaker 1: That’s a typical person.
Speaker 2: I’ll make you my thumbnail, sir. Face that ass up.
Laura Shark: No, leave me there.
Speaker 3: Awkward!
Speaker 4: Checking it out too.
Laura Shark: Sometimes you just gotta take the loss.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Finally, with the cops impounding the car, Tom and Laura stepped in to help, as the officer seemed more than content to leave Brianna, the innocent passenger, stranded without her wallet, her house keys, or her phone, which were all impounded with her friend’s car. Take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Brianna: So what the officers made it seem like the reason they arrested him and did all of this to him was because of y’all, that’s what he’s trying to make it seem like. Oh, that’s the reason that they –
Laura Shark: Hah, checks out.
Tom Zebra: They send you over here knowing that you’re not going to be able to get your shit back.
Brianna: Nothing. It shouldn’t even have gotten to this point. He shouldn’t have had to pay any fee to get it out of here.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now there was more going on behind the scenes during this arrest that was not captured on camera, and there have been ongoing consequences for the motorists that Tom and Laura tried to help. So for more on that, I will be joined by them both later. But first I’m going to check in with my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, who’s been reaching out to police and sheriffs for comment and delving into the details of the case. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me here. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So Stephen, what are the Los Angeles County sheriffs saying about the arrest? How are they justifying it?
Stephen Janis: So Taya, I reached out to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I sent them an email, asked some very specific questions: How do you justify this arrest? What is the criteria used for DUIs when it involves marijuana? I have not heard back, but I will continue following up and let people know in the live chat if I hear anything.
Taya Graham: So this is not the first time we’ve reported on the LA County Sheriff’s Department. What did we learn in reporting those stories?
Stephen Janis: Well, Taya, we are quite familiar with the LA County sheriffs. One of our biggest videos ever was a report on Daniel Alvarez, who was illegally arrested by LA County sheriffs for not pulling up close enough to a stop sign. But it turns out the ACLU did an incredible report on the LA County sheriffs, noting that 90% of their stops are just directed by deputies, not for serious crimes, that they barely answer any calls for service, and that LA county itself spends billions on the sheriffs, but only $40 million on homelessness, $71 million on affordable housing. This is a prime example of misdirection of social resources and why we have to keep reporting on these kinds of stops.
Taya Graham: So what’s your take on the role of cop watchers like Laura and Tom in the ongoing struggle to hold police accountable? What’s your take on their work?
Stephen Janis: Well Taya, let’s look at it this way. The ACLU releases a report that says they’re spending two-point-something billion dollars on the LA County sheriffs and that they’re making all these useless stops, that they’re stopping people for no reason without serious crimes. Just protectual, just to pull over people. So we don’t need cop watchers? I mean seriously, you have this agency that is hoarding public resources, pulling people over, transforming their lives in the worst possible way, not doing anything to improve community or improve public safety.
Let’s look at an example. In one of the stats they quoted, only 10% of property crimes are solved. So given that you’re telling me we don’t need cop watchers, seriously? We need more cop watchers, we need to multiply Tom and Laura and have 10 Toms and Laura, obviously, because the LA County sheriff needs it, we need cop watchers, and we need more eyes on the street.
Taya Graham: And now to discuss the police encounter we just witnessed, how they used their cameras to keep police honest, what it’s like being a cop watcher in the city of Los Angeles, I’m joined by none other than legendary Tom Zebra and intrepid Laura Shark. Thank you both for joining me.
So first, why were Darius and his passenger originally stopped?
Tom Zebra: Some would probably say it’s because of his color. The nice car that he was driving. There was a legal reason. He did have window tint, and that’s all it takes to get pulled over in this neighborhood. But before they pull you over with a window tint, they always shine the light. They come from the opposite direction, they shine the light, and they don’t pull over every car with window tint. They light up the interior of the vehicle, and then that’s how they decide, based on your appearance, which vehicle they’re going to pull over. Because I’m going to say probably half the vehicles out here seem to have window tint, but they don’t pull half of the vehicles over. They only pull over ones that fit the profile they’re looking for.
Taya Graham: So one thing I noticed is that the driver asserted he did not want his vehicle searched if he stepped out of the car, and he was assured it would not be. Were you surprised to see the officers going through his car shortly after that conversation?
Laura Shark: No, I wasn’t surprised at all. I mean really, it’s just the fact that… I guess I’d be more surprised if he bothered with any of that. I think they just kind of do what they want to do anyway. But I was a little… No, again, I wasn’t surprised. But he also made… Both of the deputies made sure to give him the incorrect serial numbers, their badge number, essentially, when he asked. He went down the line, a very general like, this is what you should do, and say, what’s your badge number, asked for a supervisor. He was doing that, like Daniel said, I mean that had to take a lot. To have the courage to do that, to talk back to law enforcement is not easy.
And for whatever it’s worth, if he sounded nervous, he probably was, and I would be too. I don’t hold that against him. Yeah, it was just a matter of… Yeah, they lied throughout the whole stop. Every time he said he asserted his rights, they brushed him off or verbally basically told him it didn’t matter, and then lied about their serial numbers, which we’ve caught Gino, right? Yeah, he said the wrong serial number several times to several different people. So this is his thing. I don’t even know if he knows his own serial number, to be honest. That might be the problem.
Taya Graham: So I think it’s Fraser v. Cup, which is the 1969 Supreme Court case that made it lawful for the police to present false evidence. However, this is within the grounds of a criminal investigation while the suspect is being interrogated and officers are attempting to get a confession. Right or wrong, that’s all on the books. Did you pick up any other fabrications by the officers during the stop, or times when the officers were being less than honest?
Laura Shark: Basically I feel like the whole thing was a lie. From the tint, they don’t care about tint. I don’t think I personally have ever seen them actually get a ticket for tint at any of these stops that we see. He was a Black man driving a nice car, period.
Then there’s marijuana. Let’s just make it clear. In California, marijuana is legal. It is legal to smoke marijuana. Now, you’re not supposed to do it when you’re driving. There’s actually probably little laws – I don’t personally partake, so I don’t know the details of it. But as a surface, like no, you’re not supposed to smoke and drive, you’re not supposed… But the fact is you purchase at these establishments, and you have it concealed. You have it in some closed container. I think there’s probably an amount that shouldn’t exceed, I think. But regardless, they had just bought it. That’s where they were coming from and going home. It’s like a new war on drugs to me. This is legal for this reason. We have people in jail for decades, their life, because of marijuana. That’s part of the whole, let’s make this legal, is so that we can stop putting people in jail for it. But they have figured out a new way to criminalize it again.
Tom Zebra: Even though that’s no longer a probable cause in the state of California, they still use it every time, because they don’t care what’s legal, what’s illegal. They want to search everyone’s vehicle, I guess – Not everyone. People that fit the profile that they’re interested in. But if you look at their budget, they spend a billion dollars a year on these searches that I would call unlawful. And calls for service is only about $135 million a year. So the amount of money, the budget for these unlawful searches is huge. We could have that money back, and for a fifth of the price, we’d still get the calls for service.
Taya Graham: So I noted that, when the stop was initiated, it seemed clear to me that the passenger, Brianna, was calm and cooperative, the driver was clear headed and knew his rights. Why do you think the traffic stop was extended for as long as it was?
Tom Zebra: And from there it even got worse. Once we were at the station, they wouldn’t… It was like five hours by the time we were taking her to try to get her property. And I think a big part of it too was, we didn’t know at the time, but they had that video in her phone. And so I think that’s why they sent her stuff to the impound lot, because they didn’t want us to get the video.
Taya Graham: Brianna, the passenger, waited nearly two hours during her friend’s DUI arrest, and then her phone was taken away with her keys, wallet, and were impounded with the car, and then she was let go. I mean, how was she expected to get home by herself at night with no phones, no key, no transportation, and no money? Can you tell me what happened next?
Tom Zebra: It’s much worse than what’s on the surface, what you just explained. Because first of all, everything that you just said happened. She’s at the station, she’s trying to file a complaint because, obviously, that’s not okay to do that to her. So the watch commander, he has all this information. But additionally he was calling the shots from the telephone. He was probably watching our livestream and approving every single awful thing that they did. So he’s already heavily involved in this thing and he knows we’re on our way to the station when we’re coming there and all that. And he won’t let her come into the office and talk to him until after we’re gone.
The whole point is to separate us, because now she doesn’t have a ride. Now he’s going to let her go without a release, without a phone. So she still… She can’t… Has no way… They’re not going to let her use the telephone or anything. So she’s going to walk off to this impound yard. I did the map for walking directions. Since she can’t call anybody, it’s an hour and 23 minute walk in the middle of the night, and it started raining, right?
When she gets there, she’s going to find out she needs a release. So now she’s going to have to walk an hour and 23 minutes back to the police station, or if she wants, she can hitchhike. I mean, she’s a pretty woman. She could probably get someone to give her a ride, but is that fair to put her in that situation?
So when she hitchhikes or whatever back to get the release – Which they might not get to her, they have people in that waiting room for hours. Then when she walks back the second time, then they’re going to say, oh, it’s after hours. You have the release now, but it’s going to cost $85. How’s she going to pay the $85 when they have her purse and all this stuff inside? They won’t let you have any of that until you pay.
Fortunately for her and for Jody – They did this to Jody as well – They give you the wrong directions to make it as excruciating as possible, to make you go to the wrong place first before you figure it out the hard way. But I’ve already seen this scenario enough times that we know what needs to be done, and in this case Laura actually had to pay for it.
Taya Graham: Can you talk about how you helped her? The police certainly didn’t offer her a ride or assistance.
Laura Shark: So, I didn’t have to pay it, of course, but we’re standing there, and it just blew my mind. And we were on the phone with… We called back the watch commander, and I was like, dude, you sent her over here – Mind you, luckily Jody had written down her phone number to give to her. So she had it on paper, because she didn’t know. So she had written it down for her. So she was able to call her, and then asked me if I could pick her back up to take her to the impound lot.
So the thing about that is, so once the impound lot was like, yeah, it’s after hours so it’s going to cost like $85 or whatever. And I was like, bro [laughs], if I imagine the fact that, say I wasn’t there, maybe she did have to walk. God forbid, if she had no other choice, she had to get to step in and she walked that full amount. I couldn’t even imagine. And they have her… It was all this very calculated torture that they impose onto people.
Taya Graham: What charges did Darius get, and how was he fighting them?
Laura Shark: The DMV was dismissed, so he didn’t even have to go. They sent him an email saying your case has been dismissed, blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t mean that they won’t go after him on the criminal end.
Tom Zebra: From talking to him… So they charged him with a marijuana DUI, but he doesn’t… When they let him go, the court date on the paper, it was like the next morning or something. So he didn’t understand exactly what the situation was. And I don’t understand from talking to him what the situation is. I don’t know if it’s going to be something that they’re not going to file or if it’s going to go to warrant, because he doesn’t understand what… According to the paperwork, they were going to be taking him, holding him in jail and taking him to the case, but then they kicked him out and without…
Normally you get a promise to appear that explains the date and place and all that. So I’m not sure exactly. I just know that he doesn’t know either. And he had a DMV hearing set up to try to protest the license suspension. But something I want to mention is, look, I ride a bicycle around, but most adults in this country are not willing to try a bicycle around. He has that nice Mercedes-Benz. What they did to him is going to cost his license for a year.
Taya Graham: I have spoken to so many people that have had an arrest negatively impact their lives. I think there has to be a way to let police know how devastating even one arrest can be to your life, to your career, to your finances, how your friends and family see you, your psychological well-being, how traumatic it can actually be.
Tom Zebra: I think they do understand.
Laura Shark: Can I jump in? That reminds me, remember the sergeant asked me, he said, well how would you feel if your family member was killed by a drunk driver? And what did you say, Daniel? I mean…
Tom Zebra: Yeah. He’s like, have you ever lost somebody to a drunk driver? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know Brianna just lost somebody to a fake DUI. You know what I’m saying? Because she just lost her boyfriend that night to a fake DUI, and don’t feed us that bullshit about Darius. He was not impaired on marijuana, and he wouldn’t have been if he had just smoked a big fat joint, he still wouldn’t have been impaired. But he didn’t do that. They like to treat every Black person like they are losers that don’t have anything better to do than park their car in a parking lot and smoke a joint. Plenty of these people are adults. They don’t smoke marijuana in their car. They buy it and they take it home like an adult. If they’re going to indulge, they do it at their house, not hiding in a parking lot in their car somewhere. Maybe that’s what a –
Laura Shark: It’s legal. You don’t have to do that. It’s legal now in California. You don’t have to hide it, and they still want to criminalize you. They really twisted that.
Taya Graham: You know what? Did they even ask Darius to take a breath or blood test?
Laura Shark: Supposedly they did conduct a DUI investigation, but it was all in the car. They never brought him out onto the curb like they’re supposed to. There’s a whole process, a policy, everything. So there’s a whole process. The policy, there’s a very legal way to conduct a DUI investigation, and they refuse to take this man out of the car. Because god forbid we get video of him passing it for fun.
And so they opened the door, he was still in the car and they were doing that eye test. I think they looked for your eye. When you do it for as long as they were doing it, like he said too, we have so… The raw video is so long. We cut out all this stuff, because how many times do you have to put a light in a man’s face? Oh, okay. Sergeant’s going to come over and confirm. He’s like, I didn’t quiver. So then they have another, and it’s like, we were like, hey, what are you…? Is this your DUI investigation, in car, without him even standing up?
So when we went to the station with Brianna afterwards, I had asked the deputy that wasn’t there, Tyrone, deputy Tyrone, or Tyrone Beck, that I asked him, I was like, can you just let me know what the actual process of it? What does the DUI investigation look like, or even marijuana or whatever? And he said – They tried not to answer too many of our questions, but I think at some point I had him at a… Where I was like, is it common not to take him out of the car for a DUI? And he’d said, no, no, you take him on a sidewalk. And it says very clearly by law there’s supposed to be a flat, you can’t take someone onto a hill. Anyway. But Darius is a healthy young man that very easily, a DUI, a street investigation could have cleared him and let him go on his way, just like anybody else.
Tom Zebra: I’m sure you probably picked up on it, but they accused him of a refusal. But Jody’s camera got it very clearly. You could read his lips. He’s shaking his head and he’s saying, I did not refuse. He started to… Did you notice that part, where you could actually see his mouth, his lips? He started to cry and he’s saying, I’m not refusing! I’m not refusing! Because they were going to give him a refusal even though they refused to give him the test. And what Laura was saying, how you have to take the test standing up and all that stuff, even though you take the test standing up and they do those, the vertical and horizontal nystagmus tests, those tests don’t work for marijuana.
Taya Graham: You mentioned that the officers tried to turn this around on you by asking you if you knew anyone who had been a victim of a DUI or drunk driver. They tried to make you feel guilty, right?
Tom Zebra: He was trying to play into my emotions, because the thing is, I think what I told him, he said, have you ever lost anyone to a DUI? I said, I’ve lost plenty of people to the Sheriff’s Department. That’s what I told him.
Taya Graham: So you can barely formally test for a marijuana DUI, and field sobriety tests are for alcohol, and a marijuana blood test can’t really give an accurate accounting of intoxication, right?
Tom Zebra: That’s a fact. There’s no way – And the government knows this too, but police officers, they know that they like to get DUIs. You mentioned before the awards for MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The person that’s getting awarded from those programs is the most corrupt police officer, because he’s the one that is framing people at a higher rate than everyone else he works with.
Taya Graham: You know what, you mentioned that the officers actually turned off their cameras while they were having a conversation. How did you pick up on that?
Tom Zebra: On my uploaded video, I put so much time into this video that at the end I just published it, and I didn’t get everything the way I wanted. But the unedited, the raw video, not only do you see them both reach for their chests, but both of their cameras did the long beat. But that’s how I knew they turned them off, is because there’s an audible signal when they turn them off, and both of them turned them off as they walked up.
Taya Graham: It seemed to me that it was essential that you arrived to cop watch when you did and the passenger’s own cell phone appeared to be taken away and turned off by police, and your video footage picks up almost exactly where hers ended. Did you know how important your cop watching was going to be to the victim, and will they be able to use your video to help them defend themselves?
Tom Zebra: At the most, there was a one-minute lapse. In other words, that camera was turned off only seconds before we arrived and turned ours on. So what Deputy Gonzalez did at first is she just threw the phone on the seat and said, oh, I’m going to give it right back to you. And pretended, got her locked in the car, and then they went back to the vehicle as they searched it, they grabbed it and turned it off. You could hear the… What do you call it, the rustling as they picked it up and it was shut off immediately, and that’s when we just happened to be pulling up.
We didn’t hear that call on the radio or anything. Believe it or not, we were looking for the Lawndale sheriff in South LA, because we’ve literally run the Lawndale sheriff out of Lawndale for a year. It’s been very hard to find them in their own city. And recently, we figured out from a couple calls on the radio that the Lawndale sheriff has been patrolling South LA to avoid our cameras. We caught them shooting into moving vehicles. We caught what they did to Darius, making profiling stops nonstop. And they’re so bitter when we show up, because they don’t want any more airtime. It’s the same group of people. They don’t want any more airtime with us because we know too much about them.
Taya Graham: Some people might ask why you cop watch? Why you take the time night after night to put yourself at risk recording the police? To me this seems like a clear example of why your work is so important, but how do you respond to the question, why do you do this work?
Tom Zebra: The answer, it changes over time. It could be different based on how I was treated last night. When you ask me that question, you probably get a different answer every time. But initially, it wasn’t because I wanted to do it. It was because I felt like they forced it on me, the things they were doing to me, I had to record to protect myself. And eventually after, I don’t know how many years it was, but eventually they quit messing with me. But by that time I had already lost my job and my home and my friends and my family. So it wasn’t like I could just go back, okay. I couldn’t go back to work. I no longer had any of those things. The only thing I had was a bicycle and a camera. So it was too late for me to do anything else. So 20 years later, I’m still doing the same thing. But over the years, at first it was horrible. There was a lot of anger involved over the years. Now it’s more, I enjoy it now.
Laura Shark: Over the years, I’ve had times that I get… I lose my momentum or I start to question what I’m doing or whatever. And law enforcement always makes the situation available. Somehow, some way, they always succeed at screwing somebody. And I want to point out though, these things, what happened to Bailey, what happened to Darius, what’s happened to many, these are one out of God knows how many stops we don’t see. We see a handful a week, maybe. I mean, I can’t even imagine what we don’t know.
Taya Graham: Okay. When I report on an arrest like the one we just witnessed, I am sometimes so overwhelmed with so many thoughts about it, I just don’t know where to begin. Meaning, like many of our cases, the encounter between a motorist and an LA county sheriff conjures up all sorts of thoughts that leave me with the problem of how to express what I think succinctly and effectively.
Let’s run down the list of topics this particular example of over-policing can elicit: over-policing, check; arbitrary enforcement of the law, check; policing for profit, check; violating the constitutionally protected rights of citizens, check, check, check, and check. Like I said, there’s much to say about this one encounter with cops because, in many ways, what we just witnessed embodies all the worst aspects of a society addicted to policing. That is, what this cop did while the camera was rolling speaks directly to the court of what this show is about: the system that makes bad policing possible.
But today I want to try a different type of critique, something that perhaps might illuminate the problem better than just breaking it down in all of its disturbing parts. Today, I want you to try with me an exercise of the imagination, which perhaps will make my critique even more pertinent. What I want you to do is imagine for a second, just for a moment, clear your mind of all the propaganda we hear about needing more police, and just try to conjure a world where we, meaning the people, had decided we did not want this type of government intrusion anymore. A world where we, meaning you and I, decide that instead of spending thousands of dollars to have government officials check our window tinting, we believe it is more important to improve access to healthcare, for example, or pay higher salaries for teachers or nurses, or update our water system, or just pave a road.
Imagine if we collectively said, this is not how we want our government to serve us, to spend hours intruding on our rights. Instead, we want to build a better world for all of us where our streets are paved and our sidewalks are not pockmarked with neglect. A community where education is a right, where freedom flourishes, and that all of us work toward the cause of improving the lives of our fellow citizens, not destroying them.
I want you to imagine that world, because I want you to think about the context of the world we live in now, where the ideas I just recounted are obviously not true. I want you to think about that because I want you to help me answer another question: how did we get here? Who decided to create the world that we live in now, where the power to arrest has been prioritized over the quality of our lives? Who is responsible for a society that buys sparkling new SUVs for cops and communities that can’t provide safe drinking water?
Now, the reason I ask you to imagine this better world, this more equitable world, is because that’s what I think the type of over-policing we witnessed is actually all about. It’s about literally covering up the crime of the world of neglect I just described. But it’s also about constraining our ability to even imagine better. It’s about containing our agency to demand better. It’s about forcing us to focus on the tint of our windows so we can’t even imagine that a better world is not only possible, but rightfully ours to grasp. This entire idea that police have the right, the need, or even the presumption to pull us over for anything they can imagine is all about limiting and even prohibiting what we can dare to even imagine we deserve.
And now I can hear all the arguments of the so-called police partisans blustering from the fear pulpits. Oh, Taya, you’re so naive. You don’t understand human nature. People do bad things, and without police, society will break down and chaos will ensue. You need to focus on crime and stop dreaming of a world that just can’t exist, because life isn’t fair. Oh, really, it can’t exist? Because I can show you a place where it doesn’t just exist, but reveals the whole thesis that only more cops and more cages can save a community is simply patently false.
It starts in, perhaps, the improbable state of Connecticut. That’s where the leaders of this New England getaway decided they simply had too many people in jail, a truism that became readily apparent when the state had to transport and pay Virginia to house 500 inmates. They simply couldn’t. So that’s when leaders got together and said, enough. We’re spending too much money and time punishing people and not enough rehabilitating them. So they didn’t just close prisons and jails, they changed them. They insisted on innovative programs that provided mentors to younger inmates. They visited countries like Sweden where they learned that the jails there had more social workers than guards.
The point is they transformed the system from inflicting pain upon people to finding ways to prepare for a future. They took the resources dedicated to ensuring failure and redirected them into a program of redemption. Literally, they envisioned and imagined a world where committing a crime would not mean dwelling in a veritable social jail cell, but actually offering an opportunity to succeed.
And what was the result of imagining a world where cops and cuffs and cells don’t predominate? Well, guess what naysayers? Crime fell by over 50%. That’s right. Less cages led to less crime. Connecticut did not descend into chaos, civilization didn’t cease. The streets didn’t turn into a violence-infused New England version of The Purge. They were even able to close numerous jails during that same time period. But how is that possible? How, contrary to the reality painted by law enforcement of bad people just waiting to do bad things, could a state that closed prisons have less crime with fewer cells?
Well, it was possible because they were willing to look beyond the blue wall and consider a world where the power of policing does not define what’s possible. They were open to exploring solutions to crime and criminality that envisioned a future for the people who end up entrapped in it, not just a process of perpetual punishment.
Let me put it in the simplest terms possible: they used their imagination. That is, the people of Connecticut bypassed all the mind numbing rhetoric of the law enforcement-industrial complex by rejecting that dystopian vision that the only productive choice is punishment. They imagined a world where people can evolve and grow. Where a personal mistake does not demand an unrelenting reprisal from the state. They rejected these ideas because they imagined better.
But the reason I bring up the notion of our civic imagination under siege is because I truly believe we have to break the spell that continues to pervade our entire national conversation on what the government can and should do. Because, for the most part, the media partisans and politicians who say a more equitable and productive world is impossible can only be put in check if we are willing to cast aside their fear-infused rhetoric and think beyond them, we must reclaim the imperative of our minds to envision a world that they don’t want us to see.
And let me be specific when I say “they.” I don’t want to simply throw it out as “they” as some sort of conspiratorial cabal meeting in a secret room, burning candles and plotting the imminent destruction of humankind. What I’m describing is not some cheap superhero movie villain who’s just bad to be bad. What I mean is the people who profit from the industries that manufacture misery. The people whose wealth is so extreme, we all have to suffer to make it feasible. The elite, so to speak, who fuel inequality through their rapacious, hoarded resources that must be protected and enshrined by a punitive system of regressive injustice that makes sure we don’t just stop and turn around and tell them, this isn’t just unfair, it’s downright unsustainable.
And the tool these profiteers who monetize our misery wield with indiscriminate glee is often policing. The process they use to keep us off balance is, generally speaking, the arbitrary power of the badge. And that instrument of punishment is not just a tool of physical oppression, it is also part of their social artillery that cleaves our civic psyche into competing halves filled with tribal hatred. It perpetuates the idea that there are no ideas and no realities that can exist without fear. It is, put simply, the hammer that drives the nail of irrational thinking into the makeshift wall that continues to divide us.
That’s why I implore you to reclaim your rights, your imagination, and your dreams. Hold them, believe in them, and use them to demand a better world. Use your cell phones like Tom and Laura, and use your right to dissent. Because the only people, the only citizens who are going to make this world a better place for us is us.
I am so grateful for Tom Zebra and Laura Shark for taking the time to speak with us today and to share their ongoing work to protect their community. If you haven’t before, make sure to search YouTube and look up Tom Zebra or Laura Shark CW to see more of their work. And of course, I want to thank Intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I want to thank friends and mods of the show, Noli Dee and Lacey R for their support. Thank you both. And a very special thanks to our Accountability Report Patreons. We appreciate you so much, and I look forward to thanking each and every one of you personally in our next livestream – Especially Patreon associate producers, John Er, David Kane, Louis P, and super friends, Shane Bushta, pineapple Girl, Chris R, Matter of Rights, and Angela True. And if you liked hearing me say your name, consider becoming an Accountability Reports Patreon.
And I want you watching to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course, you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter and Facebook.
And please like and comment, I do read your comments and appreciate them. And we have a Patreon link pinned in the comments below for Accountability Report. So if you feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is really appreciated. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please, be safe out there.