Miguel Cooper was out driving with friends one night in 1998 on Adams Avenue when a police car flagged him to pull over. As he recalls it, the officers ordered the men out of the 1990 Chevy Super Sport and shone flashlights in their eyes.
Cooper started to put his keys in his pocket when one of the officers barked that he would shoot. Then he was patted down.
"Can you believe that?" said Cooper, 33, still incredulous as he related this tale over lunch in the food court of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Tuesday. As far as Cooper could tell, it didn't matter to the cops that night that he is a professional man, and it wouldn't matter to them now that he is a patient resource worker for the L.A. County Health Services Department.
"All that matters to them," said Cooper, who drives a vintage Oldsmobile, "is that I am a young black male in an old Cutlass -- that's their profile."
A day after the LAPD released a study of traffic stops in the latter part of 2002 broken down according to race, residents across Los Angeles offered up their own stories of personal encounters with police officers. The study showed that although officers stopped drivers of different racial groups in numbers roughly proportional to their share of the population, officers were more likely to order blacks and Latinos out of their cars and to search the cars as well as the drivers.
It took little more than random strolling around the city to elicit frustrated confirmation of those statistics.
At the Hair World Salon, three blocks from the LAPD Southwest Division station on Martin Luther King Boulevard, all six barbers and patrons complained of harassment for no other reason than their race. While having his head shaved, James Cowen, 20, told of being pulled over last month and accused of burglary by the police.
He said that his 1987 Cadillac makes him a target for police stops. "Cutlasses, Caprices, Monte Carlos, Regals, basically anything you can put 'dub' [20-inch] rims on" are profiled by police, he said.
Though many blacks and Latinos had stories of being treated unfairly by police officers during traffic stops, some speculated that the study didn't tell the whole story of why cops stop people. For one thing, some said stops could be attributed to more than racial profiling. Wrongly or not, clothing, hairstyle, car make and model, attitude can all attract police attention, some residents said.
"Black people get in trouble for being loud and ghetto," said Tasha Williams, 33, a lifelong resident of the Nickerson Gardens housing project. "But Hispanics know how to act accordingly when the police come around.... They know which role to play."
Raul Torres, 29, probably would not agree with that. Torres had just left the Numero Uno market on Alvarado Street near Pico Boulevard when police stopped him in his 2000 black Ford Expedition two months ago. Torres said he was ordered out of the car and searched.
"They went through my whole car, asked how much I made, and how I could afford a car like that," he recalled. The officers told him that his car fit the description of a car that had been stolen. Torres, it turns out, is a manager at the market.
Other men recalled stops that didn't seem to have any credible explanation.
Sergio Diaz, 34, a UPS sorter and the father of three who came here from Guatemala two decades ago, was driving in the San Fernando Valley when he was pulled over. "I was with the kids. They put the light on me. It made me feel really bad. If I was with friends, I would understand," he said. "But I had the kids."
To Lee Johnson, a 50-year-old black administrator with a federal government office, the reason for many stops is clear enough -- so clear there is no point in doing studies like the one released Monday.
"It's nonsense to go around debating this and debating that," he said. "These are racist maneuvers. And the cops know that. I haven't been stopped in five years. But I've been stopped. I live in LA. I'll bet [former Police Chief] Bernie Parks, himself, has been stopped."
Of course, other people recalled perfectly pleasant encounters with the police. "The officers who pulled me over were quite nice," said Veronique Diallo, who is 32 and black and lives in Hollywood. "That's not to say it can't happen to me, that's not to say racial profiling is a myth. Because it's definitely not."
LAPD Det. Bernie Pulliam, 53, is black and a veteran detective in domestic violence in Van Nuys. He sympathizes with the fear of people who are stopped -- even as he says that police officers are not racially profiling.
"No one wants to get stopped by the police," Pulliam said. "We all get that feeling. But when a Hispanic or black gets stopped, they think, 'Oh, man.' Cops don't have time to stop someone -- when you get stopped there's probably a good reason."
Raul Sandoval, 32, a UPS worker in Boyle Heights, said he believes most officers stop people for either infractions of the law or because they look like gang members. And he understands it. "You have to put yourself in the shoes of the police officer," said Sandoval. "Are you going to pull over someone who looks regular or someone who looks like a gangbanger? It's sad to say, but it's true."
But what about the experience of Luveyo Phama of Sherman Oaks?
Phama, a 22-year-old South African native who is black and has been living in Sherman Oaks for three years, has been stopped twice. Once he was driving with friends in Studio City. The other time he was standing in front of his house in Sherman Oaks late one night last year, talking with friends when police pulled up and told him to move along.
"I live here," he told them.
When the police officer said his friend would have to leave, Phama and the friend refused. "If it's a weekend, if it's late, if you're four black guys in a car, you're going to get pulled over and you're going to get pulled out," said Phama, a student at Valley College.
Anthony Hunter, 43, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, is a light-skinned African American who said his skin color "creates a benefit of doubt." When alone, he never has run-ins with police. "I'm just as African American as the next black man, but I don't appear to be," he said.
But while riding with his darker-skinned brother, he was pulled over by the LAPD, who ordered the two out of the car, searched the car and patted down his brother, the driver.
As befitting a diverse city, not everyone's story of encounters with police followed predictable lines. Melissa Glass, 31, a visiting nurse who works at Centinela Hospital in southeast Los Angeles, could empathize with blacks and Latinos who felt stopped unfairly by police. She herself was stopped -- wrongly she says -- early one evening as she drove by Manchester and Vermont avenues.
"Some officers pulled me over and asked me what I was doing over there," she recalled, saying she was on her way to visit a patient. "It kind of surprised me, but it made me understand [the police] have preconceived ideas about how things should be." Glass is white. And the officers who stopped her are black.
Some people look at getting stopped by the police as simply a way of life -- triggered by clothing and location, not just race.
Patrick Ramos of Alhambra said he had become accustomed to the stops. Once, driving his cousin's Chevrolet Blazer, he was pulled over and taken out of the truck while the police "tore the car apart -- glove compartment, speakers, side panels," says Ramos, now 22, who thinks his shaved head and clothing singled him out for scrutiny.
But things have changed for Ramos: "I stopped getting stopped about three or for years ago," he says. "I grew my hair and stopped dressing like an idiot. You know -- baggy pants, tank tops, sneaker warm-ups."
Times staff writers Carla Hall, Hanah Cho, Hilda Munoz, Zeke Minaya, Denise Bonilla, Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.