A police traffic stop of Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes without any apparent probable cause has sparked an internal investigation, The Blade has learned.
Mr. Sykes, a former Toledo Board of Education member who was elected in November to city council, was pulled over at 9:25 p.m. April 24 after leaving the studios of WGTE-TV for a program on senior citizens and hunger.
Mr. Sykes, who is African-American, said the officer, who was white, likely racially profiled him. Mr. Sykes said he has been racially profiled many times in the past by law enforcement officers, and that the license plate of the sport utility vehicle he was driving that night reads “4DRWBLK,” which stands for “4 driving while black.”
Mayor D. Michael Collins ordered an investigation after he learned of Mr. Sykes’ allegation in an April 30 letter to Police Chief Bill Moton.
“I have instructed the chief of police that this matter, be it from a councilman or any member of our community, is a serious concern and I would fully expect a thorough and complete investigation,” the mayor said. “If this investigation results in sustaining of the charges of racial profiling, it will be dealt with to the extent that employee law and all other laws in Ohio are applicable.”
Mr. Sykes detailed the traffic stop in his letter to Chief Moton.
He said the police officer followed him north on Byrne Road for a short distance before pulling him over. Mr. Sykes said the officer questioned him about where he was coming from, his destination, and if he had and drugs, alcohol, or weapons in the vehicle.
After the officer took Mr. Sykes’ driver’s license, another police vehicle arrived at the scene.
Mr. Sykes said he asked the officer, “What is the problem?” and his reply was, “It was difficult to read your tags,” according to his letter to Chief Moton.
“Chief Moton, as I drove away, I became very angry because he had no justification nor did he give me a decent reason for stopping me,” Mr. Sykes wrote in the letter. “Stating that he stopped me because he could not read my license plate, my license plate reads 4DRWBLK, which stands for “4 driving while black.”
Mr. Sykes said the incident angered him because he was not speeding, did not run a red light, and he was not driving his 2005 Chevrolet TrailBlazer erratically.
“So why would he need to check the license plate or what cause would he have had, the only reason that I can come up with, is that I was profiled,” he wrote to the chief.
“I would like an explanation as to why this young officer would search for a reason to pull me over or look at my plate,” he wrote. “My license plates are big and bold, and it makes no sense why he would not be able to read it, I’ve had these license plates for the last 20 years and it is because I have been profiled so many times and stopped for driving while black.”
Mr. Sykes called for an investigation and wants to know if other motorists in Toledo are “treated the same way.”
Chief Moton did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Mayor Collins said no one in his administration would comment on the allegation or the investigation.
Last year, then-Councilman Collins clashed repeatedly with then-Mayor Mike Bell on the question of whether Toledo police officers engage in racial profiling. Mr. Collins said at a forum sponsored by the Toledo chapter of the NAACP early in the campaign that based on a report from the city police department, he did not believe racial profiling existed. He turned the question back several times at Mr. Bell, asking if the report was a lie.
Mr. Collins said the internal police department report said there had been no reports of racial profiling. Not long after taking office in January, Mr. Collins said that former police Chief Derrick Diggs and former Safety Director Shirley Green should have taken ownership and responsibility for that report.
In 2002, Mr. Sykes, when he was on the Toledo Board of Education, sued Ottawa County’s Carroll Township police department, alleging he was illegally detained for racial reasons while taking a walk along State Rt. 2.
The suit was filed in Ottawa County Common Pleas Court over the stop that occurred Jan. 12, 2002, near a unit he owned in the Green Cove Condominium complex. It said Mr. Sykes was out exercising along the two-lane highway when an officer stopped him and began questioning him. The officer refused to say why he had stopped Mr. Sykes and ordered him to wait while he checked for warrants on him, the suit said. After 15 to 20 minutes, the officer determined there were no warrants for Mr. Sykes and allowed him to leave, according to the complaint.
“Defendants’ actions in stopping, seizing, and depriving plaintiff of his liberty were intentionally motivated by plaintiff's race,” the suit said.
Mr. Sykes said there was a “cash settlement” in the case because the officer “violated his civil rights.” He declined to reveal the amount. Court records that were immediately available did not show the settlement amount.
Toledo Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson, who is also African-American, said she has also been racially profiled.
“I don't know if it is any worse here than other places, but I know it exists in this country,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. “African-Americans or minorities unfortunately have to develop survival skills to navigate. … I think compared to growing up, things are better, but we are still unfortunately a country and society that looks at each other and makes decisions based on race.”