By Amanda Milkovits Journal Staff Writer September 03. 2015
The shaky view from the cellphone video shows a Providence police cruiser with lights flashing behind a car in Mount Hope one afternoon. "What's the problem, big dude?" Dana Harris Jr. says, turning the camera back on himself in the driver's seat, waiting for the young officer to approach.
"You seen me come out of my driveway. What did I do wrong?" Harris, 24, says. "License and registration, sir," the officer says. "I have a cousin who's a Providence police officer for 23 years. What's the problem? ... I'm tired of this. I'm not a gangster. I'm not a thug." "Insurance?" Harris hands his insurance card. "I have the bill of sale and everything. I own this car. What's the problem?"
The officer looks at the paperwork and hands them back, nodding at the windshield, "You can't have this obstructing your view." "Come on, are you serious?" "Yeah, I'm serious, you can't have that there." "Air fresheners? ... That's the reason you pulled me over?" "Yup," the officer says, but doesn't give Harris a ticket. "You're bored, I can tell you're bored," Harris says. "Have a good day, man."
As his father called the governor's office and Providence police internal affairs to complain, Harris (pictured at right) posted his cellphone video almost immediately on his Facebook page. "Got Pulled Over For My Air Fresheners" went up Aug. 23 and took off. The video, just a minute and a half, hit a nerve on social-media networks across the country. People commented about racial profiling and "driving while black" - Harris is black and the rookie officer, Patrolman Brian Murphy, is white - and railed against police harassment. The Providence police also saw the video and within two days, Harris and several community activists had a meeting with Maj. Thomas Verdi and internal affairs officers.
The police told Harris that there was more to the story. Detectives had a warrant for Harris' stepbrother, 18-year-old Justice McLaren, charging him with a housebreak on the East Side. McLaren's last address is 138 Doyle Ave., where Harris also lives. When the officer saw a car pull out of that driveway, he followed, thinking it could be the wanted man. Instead, it was Harris - and the officer didn't know if he could tell him about the stepbrother's warrant. "We find no wrongdoing on the part of the officer," Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said. "We felt there was justification for the car stop, based on the totality of the circumstances."
Videos and photos of police interactions flood social media daily, capturing a range of incidents from mundane stops to dramatic encounters. Harris said he always films police when they stop him. "You never know what can happen with what's happening across the world today," Harris said. "What if I didn't record him, and it got out of hand? Then the police and court would be siding with the cop. I need to make sure they do the right steps and do the right procedures."
Police say they are seeing more people using cellphones to record them - "exponentially" - to the point where sometimes the police seem to be the only ones not filming, said John DeCarlo, a former police chief and now an associate professor and criminal justice researcher at the University of New Haven. "I don't think cellphone cameras have any different effect than body cameras," DeCarlo said. "I think cops who don't have anything to hide, they're going to do their jobs. There's so much pride they have to take." Being the subject of a viral video "is every cop's worst nightmare," DeCarlo said, but what's missing on social media is context. Police need to be trained and become more savvy in how they are perceived by the public, he said. "We police in the United States with the consent of the people, and at every turn, we need the legitimacy in order to keep the community safe. We need the buy-in of the community."
Transparency is key, and usually, the police will tell someone why they're being stopped or questioned, DeCarlo said. But, that's not always possible. "The officer may not want to share the information," he said. "An officer is always trying to balance what he or she is doing and not tipping their cards, while trying to be transparent." In this case, the officer didn't know if he could speak about the warrant. "You could understand the confusion and consternation on the part of the guy who was stopped, especially with "driving while black" and racial profiling," DeCarlo said of the "Air Freshener" video. However, "I would not be embarrassed if I was that kid," DeCarlo said, referring to Officer Murphy. "He was matter of fact, all business, and tells him sheepishly at the end about the air freshener."
Union representative Mike Imondi also defended Murphy, who is just 10 months on the job and still in the probationary period. "Officer Murphy acted in a professional manner," he said. "He did what he was supposed to do. He was being proactive and seeing if someone was wanted." Some people recording the police try to taunt the officers, Imondi said. He tells the officers to always assume they are being videotaped or recorded, and to behave professionally. "I tell my officers all the time, if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," Imondi said. "Public opinion can be what it wants to be."
Talked to stepbrother
After Harris met with police, he talked to his stepbrother McLaren, who turned himself in on the warrant. "I'm the reason he turned himself in," Harris said. "He apologized to me and manned up to face the consequences." Harris never filed a complaint against the officer, but says he was speaking with community activists Kobi Dennis, Ray Watson and Dewayne "Boo" Hackney to decide what to do next. They meet with police on Thursday. Meanwhile, by Wednesday, the "Air Freshener" video had 90,000 views on Youtube and was still going. - [email protected]