A few weeks ago, Detroit resident and openly black motorist John Felton was pulled over by a Dayton, Ohio police officer after Fenton allegedly committed the suspicious act of making “direct eye contact” with the officer. Fenton posted the video on Facebook on August 15, where it went viral and drew media attention. Mr. Felton was obviously unhappy with the stop, but he really ought to be grateful he’s still alive, free, and uninjured.
It’s true that Felton was engaging in such high-risk activities as being in his car, having hands, and obeying the officer’s commands, and that the fact that the officer knew he was being videotaped likely had an impact on the outcome, but Felton’s survival of this incident is more than just an illustration of the need for police body cameras. After all, the fact that he was being taped didn’t prevent the officer from admitting that the pretextual stop for failing to signal was actually the result of the fact that Felton “made direct eye contact” with the officer “and held it.”
No, Felton is really lucky to be alive because he never got the chance to do what he planned to do if the officer had given him a ticket, instead of a warning. Here are the noteworthy portions of the exchange:
“He ain’t about to Sandra Bland me. I swear to God, if he need anything, I’m getting out the car, rolling my windows up, and I’ll walk into the house. He can call his backup and everything, but I’m sittin’ on my mom’s house ‘cuz I didn’t do shit.”
If the rash of video encounters with police has taught us anything, it is just how quickly and trivially these incidents can escalate, and how impossible it can be for a black person to avoid an escalation. Levar Jones was shot four times while obeying an officer’s commands to the letter. He was stopped by Lance Corporal Sean Groubert after he’d already parked his car because Groubert noticed Jones wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Sam Duboseis dead because he didn’t have a front license plate on his car.
The presence of video didn’t change the outcome in these cases, although it was valuable in establishing the truth after the fact. Had John Felton not been taping, things might have gone differently, too, but video or not, the risk of escalation would have increased dramatically had he decided to exit his car and walk into his mother’s house.
If he survived that walk without making any furtive movements, he and his mom would then have had an itchy SWAT team to contend with. Every extra move in that encounter would have increased the risk to Felton, just as police officers face risks every time they put on the uniform. To a certain extent, police are genuinely owed some latitude once they are involved in an encounter with the public, because the risks to their safety can be so great, and can turn so quickly. That’s why Sean Groubert will probably never face jail time, because even though he told Levar Jones to get his license, most jurors will probably find it reasonable that he reacted to the sudden grab with deadly force (his problem will be that he lied about the incident).
So while body cameras are extremely valuable, the very best way to avoid tragic encounters such as these is for them never to have occurred in the first place. The only way to do that is through accountability. Mandatory federal reporting of profiling data on all police stops is a good start, but these cases also show the need for protection against pretextual stops. The fuel that runs the engine of racial profiling is a near-nonexistent standard of “reasonable suspicion,” but traffic stops like Felton’s manage to avoid even that meager bar through the use of the labyrinthine motor vehicle codes that are almost impossible to adhere to completely.
If it was “reasonable” to pull someone over for making eye contact, then the officer would not have needed to wait for Felton to alleedly commit a violation. In order to prevent this sort of abuse, there need to be federal laws governing which offenses are stoppable, rather than incidental to another violation. Coupled with strict profiling data reporting, a national pull-over threshold would cut down on unnecessary encounters with law enforcement, and reduce the risk to citizens and police officers alike.
Felton’s case has some creepy echoes of encounters that didn’t end so well, most notable with the inevitable “no saint” smearing of the victim. Even though Felton survived his encounter with police, a Facebook page called “I Support the Dayton Ohio Police Department” quickly posted a photo featuring a prior arrest for marijuana possession:
If Felton had gotten out of his car, that arrest record would be on the news alongside the grainiest, hip-hoppiest photo he ever took.
Instead, the viral attention to the story has resulted in the Dayton Police Department issuing a statement that offers Felton a shot at some measure of satisfaction:
During this weekend, a Dayton Police Officer pulled John Felton over on August 15 for not signaling within 100 feet of a turn. During the stop the Officer additionally acknowledged that Mr. Felton made sustained direct eye contact prior to being stopped. The traffic infraction was verified by the video; however making direct eye contact with an officer is not a basis for a traffic stop.
The Dayton Police Department is a true partner in the community and enjoys a positive community-police relationship. The Dayton Police Department is in contact with Mr. Felton. He has agreed to a conversation with the officer, facilitated by the Dayton Mediation Center. This will allow Mr. Felton and the Officer to discuss the specifics of the incident.
Thankfully, the only question that remains is, who’s going to bring the beer?