Pubdate: May 10, 1998 Source: New York Times (NY) Contact: http://www.nytimes.com/ Author: Timothy Egan WHERE BEING BLACK MEANS BEING A POLICE SUSPECT MERCER ISLAND, Wash. -- A conservative in style and outlook, long active in business and the community, 53-year-old Wayne Perryman is not the kind of man who would seem to invite police interrogation. He stands out on this island in only one regard -- he is one of only 300 blacks among the 21,000 residents of one of the wealthiest communities in America. "I've been stopped twice by the police for walking," said Perryman, who has lived on Mercer Island for 20 years. "The last time, not long ago, was while I was walking to lunch." The officer asked where he had been. "I said, 'What do you mean, where have I been?"' Perryman recalled. "He said, 'We got a report of a black guy hanging around this office complex.' Now, I'm a black who's not quick to call racism, but this is getting really old." Perryman's complaint, echoed by more than a dozen middle-class blacks and people of Hispanic descent who live in this community of software billionaires and mega-yachts, is not unique to Mercer Island. Whether in the Gold Coast suburbs of Connecticut or in Beverly Hills, minorities have long complained that police in wealthy communities view them with suspicion simply because their color does not match the neighborhood. But Mercer Island, the Seattle suburb that is home to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the former professional basketball stars Bill Russell and Fred Brown, likes to think of itself as an island of civility and tolerance. The pulling over and persistent questioning of residents who look "different" has prompted Mercer Island's police force to question the way it does business. Part of the problem, people here say, may be residents themselves, who as a reflex sometimes call police when they see a black person. "We tell people to call us whenever they see anything that looks like suspicious behavior," Mercer Island's police chief, Jan Deveny, said. "But simply being black is not suspicious behavior. And we've got to get that word out to people." The department has been holding a series of no-holds-barred community meetings intended to help officers understand what it is like to be continually stopped. The most recent complaints on the island have come as a furor has developed across Lake Washington in Seattle over remarks by Seattle's police chief, Norman Stamper. In an interview last month with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Stamper said that as a young officer in San Diego, he had been part of a "cop culture" that baited and harassed black, Hispanic and gay people. While many people have supported Stamper and applauded him for his candor, the Seattle Police Officers Guild has said his remarks unfairly smeared all officers of that generation. "Police officers are very sensitive about their public image," the guild president, Mike Edwards, said in a written statement. Stamper has apologized to the guild, but has not backed down from his remarks about police behavior. His comments ring true to some blacks on Mercer Island. Atteh Nettur, a music teacher from Africa, takes a bus from Seattle across the Lake Washington floating bridge to teach children on Mercer Island. As soon as he enters the island, he says, he is in another world. Three times this year, he said, police have been called to question him. "The last time it happened, a student said to me, 'Hey, African teacher, the cops are here for you again,"' he said while awaiting the bus on Mercer Island. He said the officers question him about routine things, then leave. He said he had never been charged with a crime. Henry Mack, who is black and was a janitor for the Mercer Island School District, was stopped so many times by police that teachers in the district gave officers a poster with Mack's photograph, printed with the words, "Not Wanted." Mercer Island, with its large, sometimes ostentatious waterfront homes and impeccably landscaped yards, is five minutes by bridge from Seattle on one side and Bellevue on the other. Known as the Rock, the island is a low-crime, generally neighborly community of good schools and passionate children's sports leagues. Blacks and Hispanic people each make up slightly more than 1 percent of the island's population, which is about 90 percent white. About 8 percent of the population is of Asian descent. Police harassment has been a persistent complaint by some blacks. "Whenever a black person drove onto the island, police cruisers would follow, regardless of how familiar the car and driver might be," Karen Russell wrote in a New York Times Magazine article 10 years ago. A Harvard Law School graduate, she is the daughter of Russell, the former Boston Celtics star and Seattle Sonics coach, and grew up on Mercer Island. While he acknowledged past mistakes, Deveny, in an interview last week, said he thought the problem had been solved. But in the past few months, dozens of new complaints emerged. In response to critics, Deveny and all officers in the 31-member department have been meeting with black residents of the island who complain about their cars' being stopped by police, especially those stopped at night. One man, who works nights, has been stopped more than 10 times. "You hear these stories from these people, and it's very powerful," said Deveny, who has headed the department for 24 years. "I'm trying to get my officers to consider what they're doing, what it's like to being pulled over for no reason." Even blacks who have lived on the island for decades complain of continually being stopped and questioned. "I moved here in 1969, so they know me now," said Celestine Massey. "But I have been followed, stopped, questioned time and again for no reason other than I was a black woman." Ms. Massey, a former teacher, said a police car had once followed her all the way to her driveway. She recalled: "I said, 'What did I do?' They said, 'You didn't make a full stop back a few miles ago."' Several years ago, Ms. Massey helped to form a group of blacks that brought grievances to police. Since then, the relations between minorities and officers have improved somewhat, she said. But problems persist. "The police stopped my son one night recently," Ms. Massey said. "It was for plain nothing. It was for being on Mercer Island and being a black." The practice known as "profiling," in which police stop people because they match a racial profile of a suspected criminal, has generally been held by courts to be illegal search and seizure. In a recent decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, the judges ruled in favor of two blacks -- a picture editor with Sports Illustrated and a program analyst at the Bank of New York -- who were returning from a baseball game at Dodger Stadium to their hotel in Santa Monica when they were stopped by police. Officers shined searchlights on their car, ordered them out at gunpoint and handcuffed them. The men were released after questioning. Officers said they resembled suspects in other cases. The men then sued and won in 1994. On appeal, the 9th Circuit Court sided with the plaintiffs in 1996. In a strongly worded decision, the judges wrote, "The burden of aggressive and intrusive police action falls disproportionately on African-American and sometimes Latino males." The court also made note of something blacks on Mercer Island have brought up. "There's a moving violation that many African-Americans know as DWB -- Driving While Black," the judges wrote. Deveny, the police chief, said his officers were not supposed to target people of a certain race. Violent crime is not a problem on the island, but there is persistent trouble with car break-ins and car prowling. "The bottom line is that you have a lot of rich people here," said Dennis Gac, a white businessman who works on the island and was with Perryman when he was stopped recently. "So, if somebody even looks suspicious, the cops are going to pull him over." Deveny said police had tried to get away from stereotyping by hiring minorities. But the first black officer hired, Sharon Stevens, sued the department in 1996, charging racial and sexual harassment. In her complaint, Ms. Stevens said a fellow officer left an advertisement from Kentucky Fried Chicken on her desk, implying that she would be better off working there. Another officer drew a cartoon that she found racially insensitive. Her suit was settled out of court last month, and neither side would discuss the terms. But Deveny confirmed two of Ms. Stevens' complaints and said he considered her a good officer. She now works for Seattle police. The Mercer Island Police Department has recently hired a black and a Hispanic officer, Deveny said. People of Hispanic descent also complain of police harassment. One, Juana Villafranca, said: "I clean offices at night, and when I come home to Mercer Island, they stop me as soon as I get off the freeway. Now I have to clean in the day because they stop me so much." Several island residents have taken their complaints to the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle. But the office would not say whether an investigation was under way. Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company - --- Checked-by: "Rolf Ernst"