Catch and Release

Mike Walker recently got bumped by the cops -- again. This time it went down on a Friday afternoon as he was heading home from school with his boy Brandon. The eighteen-year-old northeast Denver natives were treading steady down tree-lined 29th Avenue toward Williams Street when a District 2 Gang Unit police cruiser lurched across the intersection and onto the sidewalk in front of them. Two officers got out and told them they matched the description of a suspect in a ring of car thefts. "He said that the guy looked just like us," Walker recounts. "A big black man."

A quick ID check proved that neither Walker nor his friend was their guy, but Walker says that Officer Rick Eberharter then accused him of representing the Tre-Tre Crips simply because he was wearing a blue hat, blue shirt and dark-blue jeans. (Actually, Walker is the son of Pan African Arts Society director Ashara Ekundayo and has been a local community activist since the age of fourteen.)

Walker said, "No way," and quickly asked the officers if he and Brandon were being detained. Eberharter answered in the affirmative, and then, Walker says, he and his friend were handcuffed, searched, questioned, checked for outstanding warrants, verbally abused and finally cleared of all wrongdoing and released. "Have a nice day," Walker remembers the officers saying as he stuffed rooted-out pencils and binders back into his bag. But before the police peeled off, Walker made sure he did one thing: He demanded their business cards.

Since 2001, every police officer in Colorado has been obligated to offer a business card if they detain someone in a traffic stop but don't cite or arrest them. This was established as part of House Bill 1114, which was passed a year after Governor Bill Owens's 2000 executive order banning racial profiling. The ban was issued in response to a series of nationwide studies that found that law-enforcement agencies were specifically targeting Black and Hispanic motorists for vehicle searches ("Target Practice," January 24, 2001). The bill not only required that business cards be given out, but mandated that all law-enforcement agencies have a written policy against racial profiling and provide officer training on the issue.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone got the memo.

Which is why Walker and other members of local youth-organizing group One Nation Enlightened are in such awe as they sit in their LoDo headquarters and stare at the small rectangle of cream-colored stock that Eberharter turned over. Despite the fact that an educational campaign about these hunks of paper has been O.N.E.'s main focus in recent months, this is one of the first times that they've come face to face with an actual business card relinquished after a stop.

"HB 1114 was an attempt to remedy racial profiling," says O.N.E. executive director Soyun Park. "And I know it seems like a minuscule thing, but the business-card portion was the one thing that we could get included in the bill for motorists to know who the officers were, as a way to hold individual officers accountable."

Park helped form O.N.E. earlier this year when the youth-led Students 4 Justice and the Campaign to Fight Racial Profiling outgrew their home at the Colorado Progressive Coalition. Now with 300 members, the group focuses on building power for inner-city youth of color by eschewing traditional activist circles and instead recruiting their mostly African-American, Asian and Latino participants directly from area high schools and recreation centers like the Spot.

"We're an organizing group; we don't work with activists. We don't work with people who are used to speaking up or having their voice heard or making complaints," says the 33-year-old Park, who holds a degree in political science from New York University. Instead, she says, the group works with those "making the decisions about the work and about the policy changes, because they're the ones who are going to know what's going to make an impact with the students [and] with the young people."

The most consistent issue brought up by the teens is racial profiling. So after a summer-institute training program, O.N.E. created a hotline (303-825-7676) and unleashed a cadre of paid youth organizers into Denver's east-side and west-side neighborhoods with a door-to-door survey to find out if residents were aware of HB 1114 and whether they were receiving cards from police after traffic stops. Most had no idea the policy existed, let alone gotten cards.

For Troy Ray, one of the three adult organizers for O.N.E., it's become a very personal issue. Since the beginning of the year, the 27-year-old says he's been pulled over nine times for driving in and around his Park Hill neighborhood. He's never gotten a ticket, but he's only received one business card. "I've asked for the cards, too," he says. "They act like they don't know what I'm talking about."

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Jared Jacang Maher

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