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Sunday, August 15,2010

Driving while black?

Three Lansing City Council members find themselves in an “appalling” situation en route to Detroit

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was updated August 13.


Click here to listen to Lansing City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar describe the traffic stop.


It was about 7 p.m. on a warm, sunny Tuesday evening and three Lansing City Council members were en route to celebrate Mayor Virg Bernero’s nomination to be the state’s next governor.


Even though Bernero’s nomination wasn’t confirmed until about 10 p.m., they were each jovial, confident he would receive the nomination.


At-Large Councilman Derrick Quinney was driving his 2009 brown Buick Enclave eastbound on Interstate 96 toward Detroit from Lansing with City Council Vice President Kathie Dunbar in the back seat and Second Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton up front.


Quinney had his cruise control set near 80 miles per hour near exit 137, by Howell, when they noticed a Michigan State Police trooper approaching from the rear. Quinney veered into the right lane to let the trooper pass, but neglected to signal his lane change.


The trooper passed by innocuously doing what Quinney estimated to be 84 miles per hour. Five to 10 miles passed before the three Council members interacted with the trooper again.


Near exit 145 by Brighton – cruise control still set – the Council members came up behind the state trooper, visible in his rearview mirror for a few miles.


The ensuing events were anything but routine, polite or racially tolerant, according to the three — a black man and two white women. An un-signaled lane change was the trooper’s rationale, but the time in his rearview mirror was the Council members’ evidence that this was a classic case of DWB — driving while black.


All three Council members confirmed that after a short time behind the trooper, he slowed down, moved over to let them pass, merged back into their lane behind them and put on his flashers.


“It was bizarre and very strange,” Houghton said. “The cop slowed way down. I have never had that experience before.”


“He saw Derrick in his rearview mirror, obviously,” Dunbar said. “Why would you get behind us in the middle of traffic?” When the young, white male trooper approached the car — the Council members estimated he was in his late 20s or early 30s with blond hair — he had a “condescending, rude and arrogant” tone toward Quinney.


The trooper approached Quinney's vehicle and instead of asking for his license and registration, asked for all three of their  IDs, Dunbar said. Then the trooper asked where they were going and why.


In response, Dunbar said they were going to Detroit for the gubernatorial party because they were three Lansing City Council members showing support for their city's mayor.


"There was no attempt on any of our parts to say, 'Hey, look who we are,'" Dunbar said.


It was the tone in which he asked questions that made it evident he was trying to upset Quinney, Houghton said.


The trooper asked Quinney if his front turn signals worked.


“I thought, ‘I drive a 2009 Buick, of course my blinkers work,’” Quinney recalled. But he obliged.


The trooper returned to Quinney’s side and instead of asking for just his license and registration, collected all three licenses to confirm they were each elected officials from Lansing. Houghton said it was a “long time” before the trooper came back with their licenses.


Upon returning to Quinney’s vehicle, the trooper explained that he would not be writing a ticket for not signaling a lane change. Quinney reached for the three licenses, while thanking the trooper for not writing a ticket. The trooper snatched them away, asking, “What did you say?” according to Dunbar.


“Thank you. Sir,” Quinney responded. Each recalled the trooper saying “that’s better” before returning to his vehicle and exiting at Spencer Road, exit No. 147, near the Michigan State Police Brighton Post No. 12.


At this point, Dunbar and Houghton were fuming, though Quinney appeared nonchalant.


“I could have handled it one of two ways,” Quinney said. “I could have been arrogant and mouthy and probably gotten a ticket, or cooperate. I chose to cooperate — I don’t want to pay a $120 ticket.”


Dunbar and Houghton see it differently.


“We were sitting there apologizing to Derrick right after it happened,” Dunbar said. “I’m kind of sick I had to see this. I have never seen something like this up close. It’s disturbing.”


Houghton agrees with Dunbar. “I never want to experience that again,” Houghton said. “The way he came off, it really seemed that it was racist. I hate to say that, and I hope law enforcement is above that.”


“I am appalled by the rudeness and arrogance (of the trooper). We did nothing to make him feel that way,” Houghton added.


Though Quinney has remained cool about the situation, he has no doubts about the trooper’s racist overtones.


“I truly, truly, truly believe this was a black and white thing,” Quinney said a few days after the incident. “I drive between 1,000 and 1,500 miles per month for my job — I’m on the road all the time — and I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.”


On the following Monday morning at Brighton Post No. 12, Michigan State Police Lt. Gene Kapp had not received a formal complaint from any of the Council members and could not issue a statement on the incident, nor did he know the trooper involved. He said sometimes incidences like these are exaggerated.


“It’s not like what you see on TV — like (the show) 'Cops,'” Kapp said. “Traffic stops happen in different manners for different situations,” he said.


City Pulse filed a Freedom of Information request Monday seeking to identify the trooper. Quinney said he plans to file a formal complaint Friday morning. All three said they were too wrapped up in the situation to get the officer’s name or badge number.


“It was one of those incidents where if Kathie or I was driving it may have been different,” Houghton said. “To approach three professional people that way … I’m just upset for all of us.”

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