John Felton was driving to his brother’s house in Dayton, Ohio, on a recent night when he noticed a police car tailing him. Not wanting to give the officer any excuse to pull him over, Felton, who is black and was visiting Dayton from Michigan, tried to drive extra carefully. But the effort was insufficient: Soon after making a turn, Felton was forced to stop his car and show the officer his driver’s license.
It turned out Felton had not switched on his turn signal at the exact right moment; as you can see from the video Felton made of the encounter and sent to talk show host David Pakman, the white officer told him he had failed to signal within 100 feet of making his turn.
But why, Felton wanted to know, had the officer decided to follow him in the first place? That’s when the stop went from being an ordinary illustration of racial profiling to an extraordinary one.
“You made direct eye contact with me and held onto it when I was passing you,” the officer told Fenton. The implication was that Fenton had marked himself as a suspicious character simply by looking at the officer.
Update, Aug. 28, 5:10 p.m.: The city of Dayton put out a statement about the incident, acknowledging that “making direct eye contact with an officer is not a basis for a traffic stop.” The statement implies—but doesn’t say outright—that in pulling Felton over for not signaling within 100 feet of a turn, the officer was complying with a Dayton police initiative called “Safe Communities Through Aggressive Traffic Enforcement,” aimed at reducing traffic-related fatalities. The statement also says that the police department “is in contact with Mr. Felton,” and that he “has agreed to a conversation with the officer, facilitated by the Dayton Mediation Center” that will “allow Mr. Felton and the Officer to discuss the specifics of the incident.”
For those who have been following the past year in race relations between police officers and black people, that will sound familiar: Making eye contact with cops was also what set off a chase in Baltimore that ended with Freddie Gray sustaining fatal injuries in the back of a van.
During a eulogy, the Rev. Jamal Bryant to say the following to Gray’s mother:
On April 12 at 8:39 in the morning, four officers on bicycles saw your son. And your son, in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, did something black men were trained to know not to do. He looked police in the eye. And when he looked the police in the eye, they knew that there was a threat, because they’re used to black men with their head bowed down low, with their spirit broken. He was a threat simply because he was man enough to look somebody in authority in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother … you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. He knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.
John Felton made it out of his encounter with the Dayton police officer with only a citation. As you can see from watching his video, he knew it could have been worse.
“No disrespect—I don’t have nothing against police officers,” Felton said after being pulled over. “But with all the shit that’s going on, that’s some scary shit, to have a police officer just trailing you.”
Not that he was surprised—you can hear him say “Didn’t I say he was going to do this?” to his brother at the beginning of the interaction. Nor should he have been. According to the book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, a sociological study of traffic stops in the Kansas City metropolitan area, black people are much more likely to be pulled over for so-called investigatory stops—in which the purported violation is extremely minor, like failing to signal, as opposed to serious, like driving drunk—than white people. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote after the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina—following a traffic stop for a busted taillight—the study found that more than half of all stops for blacks were for minor violations, as opposed to just 34 percent of stops for whites.