Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes has a chip on his shoulder – and rightfully so. He's a black man who has been stopped by police more times than he would care to remember. He's been harassed, and even sued – and won a settlement – after he alleged that the Carroll Township Police Department illegally detained him for racial reasons while he was taking a power walk back in 2002.
Yes, Mr. Sykes is a man who has experienced being pulled over – or stopped mid-stride, as it were – for reasons that are often unclear, or suspicious to him. And he's also an idiot for having a plastic covering on his license plate, and a vanity plate that reads “4DRWBLK,” which means “4 driving while black.”
I told him as much today as I sat in his office, just moments after he held a news conference to apologize to Toledo police for the public imbroglio that followed his letter to Chief Bill Moton questioning why he was stopped by two officers last month. He took my scolding like a man.
And Mr. Sykes assured me he is getting rid of the vanity plate. Good. It's ridiculous for a 65-year-old man – an elected official, no less – to be driving around with such a provocative plate. He's said he has had the plate for more than 20 years. Well, Mr. Sykes, it's time to grow up.
“I had been stopped so much, I wanted to make a statement,” he said. “I was stopped so many times, and all of my friends were stopped. It was from the '80s and early '90s, when drugs were big, and those of us who had expensive cars were being stopped because we were told we looked the part.
“That's a humiliating and fearful experience, and it happened over and over,” he said. “They never had a justifiable reason in stopping me, and they told me so.”
Mr. Sykes isn't crazy. I believe him. Driving while black is a real thing – anyone who would argue the practice of pulling over those with brown skin doesn't exist lives in a world of denial. There is a long legacy of racial bias by police officers, particularly when making traffic stops.
If you are African-American, you've likely been pulled over for questionable violations. Because in this country, being black – especially black and male – means you are inherently criminal.
African Americans can sympathize with Mr. Sykes' frustrations, as can Latinos. Systemic and institutional racism has programmed us to ask: Did that happen just because I'm black? Or brown? Oftentimes, the answer is yes.
But Mr. Sykes doesn't get a pass because of his personal experiences. None of us gets a pass. He was stopped by officers because he did not have a front license plate and because his back plate was obscured by a plastic covering. Those officers had the legal authority to make the stop.
Mr. Sykes further muddied the waters by suggesting that he was pulled over because he was profiled. Though he didn't use the term “racially profiled” in his letter to the chief, it was implicit. Mr. Sykes was tiptoeing around a landmine, and is now trying to back away before it detonates. I am pleased that he apologized to the officers; it took courage to admit publicly he was wrong.
The councilman was not a victim of racial profiling. If anything, he was the victim of a teaching moment, one in which a veteran officer was schooling a rookie on how to conduct traffic stops. On a different night, Mr. Sykes might not have been pulled over. The stars just happened to align.
The internal affairs report shows that Officer Derek Cranford was training Officer David Sprott, who had been on the job for four days, on traffic stops. They had spent the week pulling over people for not having front plates, or if a headlight was out, or no headlights were on. In his statement, Officer Sprott said they weren't writing citations, but were just giving warnings.
It was obviously difficult for Mr. Sykes to accept that he could be pulled over though he wasn't speeding, didn't run a red light, and was not weaving or driving recklessly. But he says the findings of the internal investigation, and the political firestorm that has followed him for the past week, have taught him valuable lessons about race in this region. People are rightfully quick to criticize when the flames of racial hostility – spoken or not – are frivolously fanned.
He's ready to move forward, though it still might be a bit of a bumpy ride for him. I suggest that if Mr. Sykes decides to stick with vanity plates, he should roll with something more gracious and welcoming, such as one that reads HIOFCER (Hi, officer).