Los Angeles police pulled over and detained Olympic medalist Al Joyner twice in Hollywood on Friday in what police described as routine questioning but Joyner said was racially motivated harassment.
"I saw my life flash before my eyes," said Joyner, who is black. "Normally, the first thing I would have done is reach for my wallet for my drivers license. Thank God, I didn't. I would have been shot."
Joyner said he was ordered out of his sports car at gunpoint, handcuffed and told to kneel on the sidewalk shortly before 11 a.m. on a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard near Martel Avenue. Only minutes after being released, the 1984 gold medalist in the triple jump was pulled over again just two blocks away and ordered from his car.
Joyner was not arrested, and in both instances, police said, he was not accused of any wrongdoing.
"The way they pulled me out of the car and talked to me, I think (it was racially motivated)," said Joyner, husband of Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner. "I came out smiling. I don't think I have a criminal look."
Police defended their handling of the incidents, saying that in both cases they had reason to believe Joyner may have committed a crime. Two of the officers involved in the incidents--both Latinos--said they handled Joyner "by the book" and denied that race played a role in the decision to detain him.
"It was a routine traffic stop," said Detective Marie Valencia, who was driving in an unmarked car behind Joyner as he headed east on Sunset in his wife's 1984 Nissan 300ZX.
"We absolutely did the right thing," Valencia said. "He was acting like something was wrong."
Valencia said Joyner raised her suspicions because he was driving erratically, speeding up and slowing down and weaving between lanes. Joyner said he was unfamiliar with the area, was late for an appointment at his publicist's office at Sunset and Vine and was looking for addresses and landmarks to get his bearings.
When Valencia entered the car's vanity license plates--TRACK--into her car computer, records showed the plates belonged to a truck not a car, she said. Suspecting the plates and car were stolen, Valencia radioed for assistance, she said. Four squad cars responded, and according to merchants in the area, a crowd quickly formed.
"They were crouched down behind the doors of their cars," Joyner said of police.
"The way they stopped me, you'd think I was John Dillinger," said Joyner, who never before had been stopped by the police for anything other than a traffic ticket. Joyner said that while his hands were cuffed behind his back, an officer asked him to reach into his back pocket and get his wallet. It was the first time that officers asked to see his driver's license, he said.
"I was very embarrassed," said Joyner, who learned later that the incident was videotaped by onlookers. "I was down on my knees like a main attraction event."
As two officers detained and questioned Joyner, another officer alerted Valencia that Joyner's license plate was a special 1984 Olympic edition, Valencia said. The numbers on those plates, she said, automatically include the letters L and A as a prefix.
"Unfortunately, I didn't see that," Valencia said. "The car (plates) were rerun, and we realized it was registered to his wife."
Joyner was released, but within minutes, he was pulled over again near Sunset and Poinsettia Place by two officers who had served as backup at the scene of the first incident.
"I saw the police car behind me and the lights go on," Joyner said. "And I thought, 'Wow, who are they after.' "
This time, Joyner said, he got out of his car and police asked for his license and registration. When police told him he was being detained in relation to a hit-and-run, Joyner said he began to get angry.
"I didn't want to be hostile to the point of doing anything stupid," he said. "But I didn't want to get back in my car and get stopped again. I wanted to stay there until it was straightened out."
Officer James Sanchez said Joyner's car nearly matched the description of a car and driver involved in a hit-and-run accident in West Los Angeles. Sanchez said police were searching for a burgundy colored Mazda RX7 being driven by a man wearing a baseball cap. Joyner was wearing a hat, and his wife's car is burgundy.
"Although it was very irregular to stop him once and then again, the seriousness of the crime dictated that we needed to stop him, investigate and eliminate him as a suspect," Sanchez said. "We have to do what we have to do.
"If the circumstances dictate that a person might be a suspect in a crime, unfortunately this is what happens, whether he was a celebrity or an average person," Sanchez said.
The watch commander for the department's West Traffic Bureau said his officers were simply doing their job.
"I don't see any reason why these officers have to defend themselves," said Sgt. T. Morgan. "We have been defending ourselves a little bit too long. We don't go around lying, making up incidents and fabricating things."
Joyner, 32, is part of one of L.A.'s most prominent athletic families; his wife, whose international fame is based on both her remarkable sprinting and her unique fashion sense; his sister, Jackie Joyner Kersee, a UCLA graduate who is considered the world's greatest female athlete; his brother-in-law, Bob Kersee, UCLA's women's track coach and one of the most successful coaches in the sport.
Joyner retains strong ties to his hometown of East St. Louis, Ill., where he and his younger sister, Jackie, grew up in a modest home. Joyner attended Arkansas State University where he was a track-and-field All American.
"I refuse to think I had to go through that," Joyner said Friday night. "I just don't believe this could happen in the '90s. Just because you fit a description."