Iman Hadieh was standing outside a bar smoking with some new friends on the evening of October 6 when the police cars came. It was about eight young black men, and her, a woman of Palestinian origin who describes herself as white.
“I can’t tell you how many vehicles descended upon us because it all happened so fast,” she said. The cars were unmarked. But she knew it was the cops when they jumped out in black vests and hats, some with their guns drawn, she said. Some she didn’t see jump from their cars, but they appeared instead to come out of nowhere. She estimates there were 10 or 12 officers in all. Two witnesses who live on the block confirmed seeing a group of about 8 people lined up against a wall and frisked. They did not see the initial jump-out and could not confirm whether officers had their guns drawn.
Before Hadieh could take in what had happened, the officers were in their faces, touching and prodding the young men she was standing with near the corner of 14th Street NW and Parkwood Place in Washington, D.C. The men fell into line, signaling that it wasn’t their first time the police had jumped out at them. But as a light-skinned woman, it was hers.
“I knew they were ‘police’ per se, but they weren’t moving, talking or behaving in any way like police usually do,” Hadieh said. “It was highly tactical and organized, very militarized.”
The police never asked if they could search any of them, but “one by one they were searched and their pockets emptied,” Hadieh said. One of them, a 15-year-old, was in handcuffs before she even knew what had happened.
She said she asked repeatedly why the police were there and was told only that it was a “drug call.” The details of that night are fuzzy for Hadieh, who says she has had trouble sleeping since. But one question stuck in her mind, when the female officer said to her: “Do you realize that you are guilty by association right now?”
What Hadieh described is what many Washington, D.C. residents call a jump-out, so named because of the element of shock and surprise when multiple officers unexpectedly jump out of an unmarked car toward pedestrians. The tactic has gotten very little public attention, but it is for many black residents the mark of policing problems in the nation’s capital: militaristic, seemingly arbitrary, and reeking of racial disparity.
As protests erupt around the country, the “jump-out” has been the focal point of local advocacy for the group known as DC Ferguson. The group held a rally to protest the tactic on the week of the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, circulating a petition calling on the D.C. Council to immediately take a stand against the tactic.
Just what is a jump-out? It depends who you ask. It is typically described as multiple officers patrolling in an unmarked car, who at some point see something suspicious, and jump out of the car at once on unsuspecting pedestrians, with the intent of catching them off guard. Overwhelmingly, the jump-outs that have been reported involve at least one black male. DC Ferguson describes it as a “paramilitary tactic in which unmarked police vehicles carry 3 or more officers not wearing the standard police uniform. Their objective is to stop and intimidate ordinary citizens into submitting to interrogation or an unwarranted search.”
In some of the most egregious descriptions, cops are alleged to have drawn their weapons to do so. In others, they will allegedly manhandle, shove, or slam the suspects, frisk the suspects, or aggressively question the suspects in a manner that makes it seem as if they have no choice but to answer.
“We realized that it’s pretty much our stop and frisk,” said Kenny Nero, a co-founder of DC Ferguson.
The D.C. Police Department hardly acknowledges the term at all. When asked about jump-outs by ThinkProgress, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said, “Oh god, the fantasy jump-out squads,” explaining that “jump-outs” are a now-defunct police tactic used in the 1980s and 1990s to conduct undercover drug stings. But during a police oversight hearing following the interview, Lanier qualified her comments, acknowledging that officers do occasionally jump out of unmarked cars in drug cases, although qualifying that it’s very rare, and that she wouldn’t call it a “jump-out.”
With regard to Hadieh’s jump-out, the police department says it is investigating after Hadieh revealed many of the details during a public hearing. But police officials declined to provide any other details to ThinkProgress, and directed ThinkProgress to complete a Freedom of Information Act request when asked for documentation. That request is still pending.
‘They check the boys. They don’t check the girls.’
Get off the metro at the 7th Street exit of the Shaw/Howard University station, and you’ll see a community in rapid transition. In the 1960s, the neighborhood at the center of what was once the blackest city in America dubbed “Chocolate City” went up in flames during massive riots over the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since then, Shaw has remained mostly residential, with white flight relegating many to the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, and few store-fronts aimed at the young Hill staffers of Washington. In 2011, the city for the first time lost its black majority, and over the course of a few years, posh bars with oyster-themed menus and ironic hipster names like Southern Efficiency and Eat the Rich have popped up one after the next in between gleaming new luxury apartments, overflowing with new visitors to the neighborhood who came looking for the next best thing.
Ask these newcomers to define the term “jump-out,” and they’re likely to have never heard the term.
Walk a block south and a block west from Eat the Rich, near the other exit to that same metro stop, and you’ll find African American residents who say jump-outs are just as much a part of life as running to catch the bus.
Outside a row of nondescript brick buildings that stopped offering subsidized housing to new residents last year, several different groups of black high-school teens congregate on a warm November Tuesday evening, each around a different parked car. “Is this your car?” they ask worriedly as a ThinkProgress reporter approaches. Other than leaning against somebody else’s car, though, they aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re standing, laughing, talking.
Have they seen jump-outs? Multiple times a week, they say. A group of about eight kids nod in agreement.
“They just mess with people just to mess with them,” says one girl, braiding her long brown hair between her fingers as she explains. She qualifies that “they check the boys. They don’t check the girls.” She says she’s 16.
Do they jump out of the car? “Yeah with their guns out,” says another boy in the group, adding that they’ll grab you by the shoulder, or “hop out on you and take you off your moped.” They say the unmarked cars regularly sit in a parking lot on the corner and wait.
“I was like 11 when they first jumped out on me,” says one 17-year-old.
They used to hang out at a community center, they say, but it closed. The only other spot to hang out at the library across the street. But some of their friends are not quiet enough, and they always get kicked out.
“We used to be in there reading to the little kids. All that, man. They pushing us on the street.”
This block of 8th Street between R and S is known for jump-outs. Especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the reports of these kids are the norm, not the anomaly.
Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law has interviewed hundreds of residents in “heavily policed areas.” “I always ask them how many times have you been stopped and frisked by MPD,” Karakatsanis said. “Young people often don’t know how to answer that question. They often say, do you mean this week?”
Karakatsanis said when he asks the question in certain public high schools, nearly every student raises their hands. He asks if they understand that being stopped and frisked without suspicion that they committed a crime is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In one classroom, a kid raised his hand and corrected him, Karakatsanis recalled. “No you don’t understand,” the kid said. “These are jump-outs. They are allowed to do that.”
Karakatsanis testified during a recent oversight hearing of the Metropolitan Police Department that this is happening “every day without justification.”
‘Any casually dressed black man in the vicinity’
While Chief Lanier doesn’t acknowledge the term “jump-out” as defining any current practice of the MPD, she explained at a recent D.C. Council hearing what she believes people are often referring to when they use the term: the “Vice Unit” and the “Crime Suppression Unit.” The Vice Unit, she concedes, is a drug squad and oftentimes operates in unmarked cars or outfits its officers in plainclothes. She says they may wait on a block and “jump out of a car” in sets of four to six officers to arrest those suspected of being in the drug trade. But she says the tactic is “rarely used anymore.”
The “Crime Suppression Unit” deals with things like burglaries and robberies and may also operate in unmarked cars with their own set of tactics. They will “go to the immediate area” of the crime and look for suspects. “If the crime suppression team comes across a person in close proximity that matches the physical description,” they will stop that person. She said they’re supposed to be in full uniform and marked police cars, but some do operate wearing exterior vests. This comes from what they call a “look-out.”
According to testimony at a recent oversight hearing, and a 2007 federal appeals court case on a jump-out involving a “look-out,” typical descriptions can be as vague as black man, black jacket, jeans, with general height and weight parameters. “Apparently, a ‘lookout’ broadcast encompassing virtually any casually dressed black man in the vicinity made all black males fair game,” the dissenting judge remarked in that case.
On multiple occasions when asked about jump-outs, Lanier emphasized that there are more than 20 different law enforcement authorities policing the city, including the capitol police, park police, metro police, and federal authorities, and that she cannot account for tactics they may use that resemble a jump-out.
Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, has balked at Lanier’s claim that the tactics she described are “rarely used” by MPD. “The Chief’s assertions are directly contradicted by the experiences of hundreds of District residents who have interacted with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Vice Unit officers, who are often traveling in unmarked cars and utilize a ‘jump-out’ tactic to initiate the contact,” she told ThinkProgress. Sadanandan said she has heard “hundreds of anecdotal stories” over the past few years during community meetings and trainings.
If they don’t find nothing, then they go back in the car and drive away and don’t document anything.
Former D.C. Police Officer Ron Hampton also disputed this contention. “She’s sitting there at the council saying they don’t do jump-outs. They do do jump-outs,” insisted Hampton, who was until recently the Executive Director of the National Black Police Association.
Hampton says officers will often “stand them up against the wall,” likely frisking and/or searching them. This is the sort of thing MPD officers are supposed to document. But Hampton says “if they don’t find nothing, then they go back in the car and drive away and don’t document anything and they just conducted a whole bunch of illegal searches. That’s what they do.”
No public data is available on what residents describe as jump-outs. In fact, it’s not even clear that the department is documenting these incidents as “stops,” thanks in part to a 2007 court decision that found that a “look-out” involving a jump-out in D.C. was not considered a “stop.”
Lanier testified before the D.C. Council that she could only provide data on “stop-and-frisks” and not other stops, because mere “stops” may have not involved criminal activity and thus are not public record. The police department did tell ThinkProgress that there are 5 to 10 unmarked cars “assigned to the patrol districts for use in vice and crime suppression activities,” and quantified the total number of recorded “stops or contacts” and “stop-and-frisks” in 2013 at 7,542. These counts exclude any stops that lead to “further enforcement,” such as an arrest.
Hampton hasn’t been a D.C. police officer for 20 years, but he’s been heavily involved in the police community as a leading figure in a number of police organizations including the National Black Police Association. He says he’s seen officers do jump-outs on the streets, and he knows it’s MPD that’s responsible for these interactions, and not one of the host of other agencies that police the city. How does he know they don’t report it as a stop? For one thing, he doesn’t see them do any paperwork before they drive away. For another, he knows the culture of the police.
When Hampton was a police officer, Washington was knee-deep on a War-on-Drugs program known as “Operation Clean Sweep.” Washington, D.C. was dubbed the “murder capital” in the late 1980s, a title that continued as the murder rate hit its peak in the early 1990s. That murder rate was associated with the crack epidemic, in which hundreds of open-air markets operated in the city. And so one of the primary goals was to shut the drug trade down, lending to tactics like the jump-out.
But Hampton remembers that operation as justifying widespread police targeting of African Americans rather than just targeting drug dealers. At that time, he said, more than 53,000 people were arrested under the guise of a subversive police drug operation, but more than three-quarters of them had nothing to do with crack or drugs. They had “all to do with evidence of black folks being caught up in road blocks and traps” because they wanted to be able to “say they were doing something about the crack epidemic.”
While the word “jump-out” has been hardly uttered by officials over the past 15 years, it was a frequently used term during that period, according to a search of Washington Post archives.
A manual on Operation Clean Sweep, for example, contained “specific instructions, such as how many uniformed officers should be present as a backup and how many officers should be used in a ‘jump-out’ squad,” according to a 1986 Washington Post article.
“We did many things like create the jump-out squads or at least implement them,” recalls councilman Tommy Wells. “And these are things that we’re still doing. We still have a culture that comes out of that time.”
A task force … found in a 1996 report that judges were remarking on the prevalence of “jump-out squads” that “burst out, rounding up blacks, forcing them to ‘spread-eagle’ against the wall.”
”Several reports linked the tactic to steep spikes in the jail population, which were occurring around the country during that period as part of the War on Drugs. In 1989, the Virginia suburb of Fairfax County reported that it had seen a 40 percent spike in drug arrests over the previous year, and attributed much of that to the jump-out tactic.
At the time, these high arrest rates were a point of pride. But they began to come under scrutiny. The Post reported also in 1986 that “Assistant Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. began an investigation of the ‘jump-out’ tactic, which was being used by police to search large groups of people without probable cause.”
Ten years later, a task force assessing race and ethnicity bias in D.C. federal court found in a 1996 report that judges were remarking on the prevalence of “jump-out squads” that “burst out, rounding up blacks, forcing them to “spread-eagle’ against the wall.”
By the late 1990s, the culture of policing in Washington, D.C. was starting to change. Both Lanier and her predecessor scaled back the Clean Sweep tactics, and purported to incorporate resident input into their police practices in what is known as “community policing.”
Lanier has made it a public priority to improve the adversarial relationship between some communities and police, putting forth the image of bridge-builder in stops to public housing developments and displays of empathy toward even those who have interacted with the criminal system. Lanier said recently at an Urban Institute panel discussion, “you have to use police tactics that are reflective of what your community values are,” adding, “really the community sets the standard as to what’s allowable in a community or not.”
And she has garnered kudos for this reputation. Tracie L. Keesee, cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity, recently said to Lanier, “If we were to replicate you and put you in all the departments in the United States, we’d be on.”
But while many longtime members of the community concede that some tactics have gotten better for at least some people, they don’t think Lanier’s department is reflecting their values, and they’re determined not to pass this tradition of police hostility on to another generation.
Four times in one year
Chioma Iwuoha lived in the Shaw neighborhood for much of her life, and she grew up watching her dad stopped by police. Her house was raided as guns were pointed at their heads, she said. She was with her dad on multiple occasions during police stops. “There’s always been this idea like the police are not there to serve and protect.”
Now she is a young professional with a daughter. And if one year in Shaw was in any indication, Iwuoha’s daughter may see this tradition continue with her own father, Damian Bascom. Bascom, now a 32-year-old entrepreneur who has been recognized by Washington Life Magazine as a “passionate and productive leader,” says he has been stopped at least four times on the block where Iwuoha was living with her parents in the course of one year, all in what he calls jump-outs.
“They’re driving by; you don’t realize that it’s police,” he said. “Then they come out of the car, jump out at you. Man, it’s like they’re about to attack me and arrest me. They pull up, zoom, and just like immediately come out.”
In one incident, he was leaving Iwuoha’s house after watching the 2012 State of the Union, when police officers jumped out of an unmarked car at him as he crossed the street, he said. “They asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood,” he said. “And then I asked them, why are you approaching me like this, officers?”
One officer said “he saw me slow-dragging across the street and I looked suspicious. … I was just walking across the street. I wasn’t drunk or intoxicated or anything. … I don’t know what slow-dragging is.”
He said the officer began to become more aggressive, asking to see his ID until Iwuoha came out of the house with some other friends that had been visiting, demanding to know why they were harassing Bascom. The cops halted their questioning, he said, while telling Iwuoha she had blown the situation out of proportion. But two blocks later, the same cops pulled them over after they got into their car. They realized their mistake after they saw their faces and walked away, Iwuoha said.
Another of the times Bascom was jumped out at, he was sitting in his car on the phone when similar unmarked cars pulled up around him. Iwuoha was six months pregnant, and she came out of the house, livid she was now witnessing police stop Bascom on her block for the third time. As she moved off of the sidewalk toward the other side of the street, she said one officer “put his hand on his gun and told me to get back on the sidewalk.” Her reaction: “I’m unarmed. I’m pregnant. And he feels the need to let me know that if I come closer that he could potentially like shoot me.”
“I want to feel like a citizen,” said Bascom. “You should feel secure when you see police. You shouldn’t feel like you’re about to be attacked or be harassed.”
At a packed D.C. Council hearing on the police department where Iwuoha recently recounted some of these stories, witness after witness came to the podium for three hours to report incidents of racial profiling, jump-outs, stops of young black men. The white individuals who did testify only spoke on their proximity to African Americans, or their experience as professionals working on police harassment. One white male, Tom Bishop, even testified to contrast his positive interactions with police.
The audience at a Howard University auditorium intermittently chanted, cheered, and booed, as Councilman Wells repeatedly urged the crowd to remember that the event was not a rally. But the crowd fell dead silent as Morgan Butler, a recent high school graduate and member of the D.C. slam poetry team, interjected to make a personal plea to Wells.
“I just wanted to just like, let y’all know,” she said, “that even though you say that we’re young because we’re 17 and 18, my brothers are only 11 and 12 and they don’t know how to deal with the police.” She recounted a recent incident in which her brothers were starting to ride the Metro to school. Their mom instructed them on how to be safe on the trains, and to hide their electronics. But the kids had a different concern: “My brothers who, like I said are very sheltered, their main concern was how to deal with the police. What happens in the train if they get stopped by police.”
She swallowed hard, putting her hand to her heart. “I don’t wanna come home and see my brothers’ names are hashtags on twitter. I would just appreciate it if y’all do something and change this.” She paused to hold back tears. “I’m gonna cry now. Thanks.”
For a few years now, the D.C. Council has started to take on the issue of dramatic racial disparities in D.C. policing. In July, Washington, D.C. responded to alarming data that blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana by passing a decriminalization law. The law was a major step. But it was then that one of the foremost and earliest critics of jump-outs, the ACLU’s Sadanandan pointed out that no single law or modification is going to change a culture of policing that discriminates against blacks.
In October, residents went a step further by passing a ballot initiative to legalize pot in what was also largely a conversation about race. In fact, it was a leader of Washington, D.C.’s movement to oppose the pot legalization ballot initiative that passed in November, a young black man named William Jones, who called legalizing marijuana the “easy answer” that doesn’t “address the police and the system that has been unfairly targeting us.”
Even Lanier committed during recent D.C. Council testimony to “roll out a new drug enforcement strategy” for 2015. She did not elaborate at all on what that would look like, except to say “it will look significantly different.”
And Councilman Wells, in an assessment of his priorities as he completes his final term in office, determined even before Ferguson magnified public awareness of racist policing, to focus on Washington, D.C.’s police problem. He convened the recent series of police oversight hearings to start that process. At this point, though, it’s hard to know what will come of it.
To Sadanandan, “There is no one recommendation, no one policy, no one implementation of body camera or otherwise that will cure what we are seeing in our society. We believe this is a process that will take time and deep introspection.”
Others had more tangible asks.
Karakatsanis, the lawyer from Equal Justice Under Law, had broad requests that included a review of every criminal law on the books and a re-allocation of funding away from such police activities. He also called for meaningful police accountability laws.
Kymone Freeman, an activist who started “We Act” radio in D.C., called for a citizen review board with the power to actually indict officers. Washington has a citizen review board, but is perceived as under-staffed, and with only the toothless power to make recommendations on police discipline. Freeman is part of DC Ferguson, and that group, which has grown over the past few months, has articulated similar asks. It has also asked the D.C. Council to pass a resolution against jump-out squads.
Councilman Grosso set his sights on better collection of data, and for good reason. In New York, it was data on stops and frisks that eventually compelled outrage and reform in New York.
While documentation of racial disparities in arrests by both the ACLU and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights propelled lawmakers to change some marijuana laws, no similar data is available on stops and other police interactions. Older research of pedestrian stops, however, found that in several majority-white neighborhoods, recorded MPD stops revealed “targeting” of African Americans.
The bystander effect
Kanya Bennett was on maternity leave when she saw her first jump-out. She had seen the unmarked cars in her neighborhood of Deanwood, an overwhelmingly African American community in the section of the city east of the Anacostia River. But she never knew how they operated until she was driving around the block one afternoon to put her baby to sleep.
Even if I’m not the subject of a jump-out, witnessing a jump-out is detrimental.
As she circled one day in the fall of 2013, a car without police markings stopped short in front of her on 58th Street NE and several individuals jumped out. Her immediate reaction was fear. There had been reports of car-jackings in the neighborhood and she believed she was about to be a victim, “which of course as a new mother who is just trying to put her baby to sleep, that is a very terrifying thought,” she said.
But rather than going toward her car, the men in bullet-proof vests ran across the street to an apartment building toward two black male kids, whom she estimated were no older than 13 to 15. At that point, Bennett, who works on national criminal justice policy for the ACLU, realized they were cops, and this was a jump-out.
They “jumped on them,” she said. Not like a tackling to the ground, but an immediate pat-down and frisk. Before touching the kids, she said, the cops never said a word.
“Just watching the kids reaction to law enforcement, I mean they truly did seem shocked that they were being targeted.”
In that neighborhood, she said, crime is a concern and neighbors know one another. There have been demands for more police presence, she said, but also police attention to the right things. Community members call for faster response times to car-jackings and car fires (which have been a problem in the area). And they want police patrols. When she walked home from the metro late at night, she said, she would have liked to see more marked police cars that signal police protection. But the undercover ones jumping out at youth, that has an adverse effect on her feelings of safety.
“Even if I’m not the subject of a jump-out,” she said, “witnessing a jump-out is detrimental not only to those who were harassed, but those folks who are living there and don’t want to see that dynamic between the community and the police.”