Shawn Fletcher’s tired of being picked on.
In the last five years, he’s received at least 15 traffic tickets, he said. Since January, Spokane police officers have pulled him over more than a dozen times.
They stop him for all sorts of reasons - failing to signal, snow covering his license plate, tinted windows that are too dark.
“My skin is my sin,” said Fletcher, an African American who usually gets stopped near his home in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood.
“(Blacks) are getting pulled over for no reason. We are victims of stereotypes.”
Fletcher’s complaint against local police isn’t the only one, said the Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.
On an average day, he gets about three phone calls from people who complain about local law enforcement. Most come from African Americans who say they’ve been followed in cars, stopped for minor infractions or accused of being affiliated with a gang.
“It should be fair,” Watkins said. “Do they stop people on motorcycles? Do they stop skinheads? If you’re going to do it to one (group), do it to all.”
Complaints of racism and harassment against the Spokane Police Department have become widespread in the past decade, NAACP members say.
Just this week, the organization demanded an outside investigation into a case involving the police and Stanley Tensley, an African American who was arrested in February.
Tensley, 42, said he was attacked by two officers and handcuffed outside his brother-in-law’s house at Fourth and Pittsburg, where police were investigating a car prowler.
Although police told him to stop, Tensley continued to approach the house to check on his son, who was inside the home, he said. His shoulder was injured during the ordeal, he said.
Tensley’s arrest prompted a group of nearly 40 African Americans to go to the Public Safety Building in February and demand an audience with Police Chief Terry Mangan and his top assistants.
The investigation, however, concluded the officers did not use excessive force. It also noted that Tinsley has a history of interfering with police at crime scenes.
Police tend to stop people in high drug-trafficking areas, which include portions of East Central, police spokesman Dick Cottam said during an interview in April.
“It’s not racism,” he said, denying that police randomly stop black motorists. “They’re arrested on suspicion of a crime.”
And most blacks in general don’t get arrested, he emphasized, just as most police officers aren’t racists. Police officers are trained to be tolerant, he said. Of the more than 20,000 people arrested last year by Spokane police, only 69 filed complaints, he said.
“There’s a difference between attitude and action,” Cottam said. “Individual officers may have their own views, but it doesn’t mean they act on it. You can’t control how someone feels, but you can control how they act.”
Many African Americans disagree.
“There are good police officers, but there are some who don’t realize they’re racist,” said Eileen Thomas, a community activist. “When you talk to them, their vocabulary shows they’re not sensitive to other people’s cultures. … Their mind-set is not open.”
Fletcher, an Inland Asphalt employee for seven years, has never been in jail. He doesn’t drink or smoke, he said, but police treat him as if he were a criminal.
Whenever he gets pulled over, he said, police ask him questions unrelated to the traffic stop. Questions such as, “Where do you live?” “Where do you work?” “Where did you get the money to buy this car?”
“I’m very angry with all these bogus excuses,” said Fletcher, a 27-year-old Spokane native. “I’ve lost all respect for the police here. How can I respect them if they can’t respect me?”
Others have experienced similar incidents, but are afraid to speak out because of possible retaliation, Fletcher said.
But the stories spread and tear the community apart, Watkins said.
“We’re not here to cause trouble,” Watkins said. “We want a relationship. It shouldn’t be the police against the blacks or the blacks against the police. We all want Spokane to be a safe place.”