Woman: St. Clair Shores cop racially profiled her

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

A woman is accusing St. Clair Shores police of racial profiling after she said they cited her for parking in a handicap space, then arrested her for an outstanding parking ticket.

The St. Clair Shores police chief said the officer followed normal protocol and that race did not play a factor in the June 17 stop involving Rai Lanier, 27. They said police video footage shows a polite, professionally handled encounter performed “to the letter of the law.”

St. Clair Shores Police Chief Todd Woodcox said that during the stop, the officer could detect the smell of marijuana coming from the woman’s vehicle, which was then searched. He said it did not appear that she was under the influence.

“He recovered some items that are consistent with marijuana,” Woodcox said.

A spokesman with Michigan United said Lanier has a medical marijuana license.

Lanier, who is black, said she didn’t realize she was sitting in handicap spot when she arrived to pick up a carryout order at the Buffalo Wild Wings on Harper. She said an officer approached with his hand gently resting on his gun and asked for her license and handicap parking permit.

Lanier said she admitted she was in the wrong spot.

“It was extremely uncomfortable,” she said during a news conference Thursday in front of the St. Clair Shores Police Department. “My car was still running. My foot was on the brake. I was not asked to move over one space to the take-out parking spot. I was immediately made to feel as though what I was doing was wrong and that I wasn’t wanted and the escalation continued.”

Michigan United said Thursday that it has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act “to determine if people of color are more closely scrutinized, and subsequently arrested and fined, than white people.”

During her encounter with police, Lanier said the officer ran her license and informed her she had a warrant for her arrest for an unpaid ticket from a handicap parking violation in Troy in 2013. She said her vehicle was searched and four officers were on the scene when she was placed under arrest.

Lanier said she learned it would take $570 for her to get out of jail on the violation in St. Clair Shores and an additional fine for the warrant in Troy.

She also said she was frisked by a female officer in the presence of male officers.

“I was made to feel uncomfortable,” she said. “The entire time I had Sandra Bland in my mind,” Lanier said, referring to a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail cell in July 2015 after she was arrested during a traffic stop.

Lanier said the conditions in the jail cell were deplorable with what looked like feces on the wall.

She said when her boyfriend, who is white, picked her up, the amount she had to pay to be released was reduced to $260. She said at the point, the officers were nice.

“It made me feel I needed a white person to legitimize my presence,” she said. “The reason I’m here is I know this is not just happening to me. That this is a pattern that officers are seeing your skin and are going on fishing missions to make it clear to you are not welcome in the same community you do business in and spend money in.”

Woodcox said officers were following standard procedure during the stop. He said there were four officers present because a training unit arrived at the scene.

He said Michigan United did not reach out to the department to express its concerns prior to the news conference. “It would have been better for the Police Department and Michigan United to sit down and have a discussion about this issue,” he said. “The proper way to handle a situation like this if there is a concern, to sit down and meet with the people involved and we can handle it.”

Royal Oak-based criminal defense attorney Jonathan Jones said police have a significant amount of discretion during stops or in handing out citations and that while some officers do things by the book, others react to how they perceive a situation.

“In this particular case, whether she’s white, black or other, if she doesn’t have a handicap sticker, she ain’t supposed to be there, right?” he said. “Are (the police) trained to do everything by the book? I couldn’t tell you … Once they start investigating stuff, it can lead to other things.”

Woodcox said video footage, which has not yet been released pending a Freedom of Information Act request by media, shows a professionally handled police stop.

“It shows one of our officers being extremely professional,” he said. “Extremely polite following the letter of the law. At no point did race come into this at all. There was no issue with the demeanor of either the officer or the individual arrested.”

Michigan United also has filed a complaint with the city about the conditions of the city’s jail cells.

Woodcox said the cells are cleaned every day and decontaminated once a month.

“It’s not a place I’d want to vacation, but they are definitely clean,” he said.