Report: Sykes' claims he was racially profiled while driving unfounded

5/13/2014
BY IGNAZIO MESSINA AND TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes
Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes

A Toledo councilman's accusation that two city police officers pulled him over last month because he is black was deemed “unfounded” and video of the traffic stop, which was released today, show inconsistencies with his story.

Councilman Larry Sykes said he was stopped by police without any apparent probable cause. He wrote a letter to Toledo police Chief William Moton claiming he was racially profiled, which sparked an internal affairs “major-complaint” investigation.

Mr. Sykes, a former Toledo Board of Education member who was elected in November to city council, was pulled over on South Byrne Road, at South Avenue, at 9:25 p.m. April 24 after leaving the studios of WGTE-TV for a program on senior citizens and hunger.

VIEW: Toledo Police Department internal affairs review of Larry Sykes accusations, 74 pages

Mr. Sykes, who is black, wrote in his letter to the chief that the officer, who is 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.”

An internal affairs report stated that the two officers in the cruiser that night – Derek Cranford, a three-year veteran, and David Sprott, a rookie officer who was on his fourth shift — saw that Mr. Sykes' sport utility vehicle lacked a front license plate which was their reason for making a traffic stop. The police cruiser made a U-turn and followed him.

Once Mr. Sykes stopped, as shown in video and documented in the internal-affairs report, Officer Cranford, who was driving the patrol car, got out of the car and approached Mr. Sykes' vehicle and tapped his knuckle twice on the driver's-side window.

In the letter to Chief Moton, and repeatedly in interviews with internal affairs investigators, Mr. Sykes said Officer Cranford never gave a reason for the traffic stop.

Investigators noted that the second statement Officer Cranford made to Mr. Sykes, after asking how he was doing, was to say he could not read Mr. Sykes' license plate.

Video of the police stop shows Mr. Sykes had a plastic cover on his rear license plate – which are commonly used to obscure the letters and numbers from red light cameras. It was also difficult to read.

Almost two weeks after the traffic stop, Mr. Sykes told The Blade he did not have any kind of cover on his license plate when police pulled him over.

The video of the traffic stop shows the two officers straining to read the plate beneath the plastic cover. Mr. Sykes allowed a Blade photographer to photograph his license plate on May 5. There was no cover on the plate.

During his May 6 interview with internal affairs, Mr. Sykes told the officers he removed the plastic cover from his license plate – on either May 4 or May 5 – because he was intending to wash his vehicle. He also said the cover was dirty.

When a Blade reporter asked Mr. Sykes again late last week about the license-plate cover, Mr. Sykes questioned why the officers were even looking at his vehicle or license plate.

“What reason did they have to want to look at my plate,” he said. “And why did they ask me where I was coming from and where I was going?”

Internal affairs officers analyzed all of the traffic stops in which Officer Cranford was the primary officer from Feb. 9 through April 24. They noted reasons for the stops and which questions Officer Cranford asked during the stops.

The analysis showed that, in 30 traffic stops, Officer Cranford offered a reason for the stop in 29 instances. In 24 stops, Officer Cranford asked the driver where they were going; in 21 of the stops, Officer Cranford asked the driver if they had guns or drugs in their vehicle.

Sgt. Thomas LaForge, who drove by the traffic stop on April 24 to make sure the officers did not need back up, described Officer Cranford as an officer who “likes to stay busy. He doesn't like to sit idle.”

Mayor D. Michael Collins ordered an investigation after he learned of Mr. Sykes’ allegation in an April 30 letter to Chief Moton.

Mr. Sykes, in the letter 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.

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 the investigation and wanted to know if other motorists in Toledo are “treated the same way.”

Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, could not be immediately reached for comment. Police Sgt. Joe Heffernan declined to comment on the investigation.

Contact Ignazio Messina at imessina@theblade.com, or 419-724-6171, or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at tdungjen@theblade.com, or 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.