Alex Ford said he was 13 the first time he was stopped by a member of the sheriff’s department.
“I was going to get some doughnuts before church,” said Ford, who is black. “I had a nice new button-down shirt, some new pants and new shoes. In the time of exiting my gate and walking past the second house, a cop pulled me over and said, ‘What are you doing here? Do you belong here?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I live three doors down, at that house.’ Then he said, ‘Show me.’ I had to walk the cop back to my house.
“At that point, I wasn’t in the mood for doughnuts.”
Donna Ford, Alex’s mother, recalled that a deputy told her that because burglars were using children to crawl through windows, he and his colleagues were on the lookout for individuals with her son’s small stature.
Now 22, Alex Ford said he has been stopped by sheriff’s personnel six other times since then in the neighborhood near his family’s home on Gould Avenue. The most recent stop occurred this month, when he was home for spring break from Princeton University, where he is a senior studying film and sociology.
After this latest incident, Alex’s mother filed a complaint with the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Department alleging racial profiling.
“I see their concern,” said Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Capt. Bill Song, commenting on the seven stops in nine years. “But when deputies make a traffic stop, it’s because there’s been a violation or a suspect they’re looking for. I don’t see any issues with the contact; that’s what our deputies should be doing. We should be nosy, that’s the only way we can stop crime. It’s not, obviously, to pinpoint this individual, Mr. Ford; they’re out there trying to do their job.”
Song also said he cannot say much about the complaint filed by Alex’s mother while it is being processed.
STOP NO. 7
On the evening of Saturday, March 18, Donna Ford watched from her front door as her son and his friend, Scott Carpenter, got into a car they’d hailed via the Uber ride-sharing app. They were headed for a party in Malibu.
Moments later, Sgt. Jeff Curran pulled over the car they were riding in. According to Song, Carpenter and Ford matched the description of a pair of suspects — a white male and a black male — allegedly involved in a recent assault along Angeles Crest Highway, outside of La Cañada Flintridge, that left a victim hospitalized.
Ford and Carpenter said Curran told them he stopped the car they were in — after waving its driver past his parked patrol vehicle — because the driver crossed a marked limit line.
Almost immediately, Curran focused on Ford and Carpenter in the backseat, asking for their identification, they said.
Alex Ford said, at first, he protested: “I’ve been asked for my ID enough times when I was in a car that I wasn’t driving around here, or if I was walking, and I said, ‘Why do you need my ID? You stopped the Uber driver, so obviously he’s the one who did something that is not in accordance with the law.’”
But Ford said he acquiesced without much discussion; no one in the vehicle wanted to cause trouble, he said.
Carpenter said Curran questioned him, asking about his whereabouts a few days earlier and whether either of them drove a red Mustang. They explained they’d just arrived from the East Coast and that neither of them drove such a car.
“He said he used the limit line as an excuse to pull us over, which is fine, it’s within legal reason,” Alex Ford said. “But then he said, ‘I could’ve pulled my gun on you, but I decided I was going to be courteous.’”
Song said that the department is looking into whether or not Curran mentioned pulling his gun: “We have to see if it was said, or misunderstood.”
Carpenter said he didn’t know what to make of the statement; “He said it in a joking way, but it didn’t land the way it was supposed to land.” Carpenter also said it was the first time he can recall feeling less than safe in the presence of a law enforcement agent.
Alex Ford did not find the mention of a gun amusing.
“When the cops in your neighborhood are telling you that they could’ve pulled a gun on you, that just instills more and more fear in you,” he said. “It just gives me more reason not to go on a jog in the neighborhood; all it does is give me one more reason to not feel a part of La Cañada, which is tough, because I feel like I’m an upstanding citizen. I’m doing the furthest thing from attempted murder, you know? I’m a black kid at Princeton.
“I’m not saying it’s wrong to question people if there is an attempted murder, if there is an assault. I guess I just feel that there should be a lot more discretion taken when dealing with people in this neighborhood. You want to get your evidence, you want to get your data, you want to see who these people are in your neighborhood, but I think it could’ve been done in a different way.”
Alex’s father, Henri Ford, is vice president and chief of surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Donna Ford is an attorney who last year was named chair of the board of directors for Hillsides, a foster care charity.
For 12 years, they’ve lived in La Cañada Flintridge, where according to 2010 census data, 0.5% of the population is black.
“If these officers have been in our community, they should know there’s a black family living here,” Donna Ford said.
She said she cautions her son — who played cornerback on the Princeton football team — to wear his official Tigers gear and stick to heavily trafficked areas such as Foothill Boulevard or La Cañada High School if he’s going to run or work out when he’s home.
Donna Ford also shared an experience of waking up one morning to find a woman of Asian descent, who seemed inebriated or high and unable even to walk, in her backyard. When she called the sheriff’s department “the first thing I said was, ‘I’m black and this is my house. I’m the owner of the house, OK?’”
She said when deputies arrived, they informed her they didn’t plan to file a report and that the woman’s parents had reported her missing.
“I said I didn’t think anyone would give my son that courtesy,” Donna Ford said.
Alex Ford said he’s been stopped by sheriff’s personnel while he was walking with his hood up in the rain. Another time, he said, two sheriff’s patrol cars raced up from opposite directions to corner him while he was outside filming video (mostly stand-ups of himself) for his YouTube channel.
On that occasion, Alex Ford said “it all worked out,” though it was “really startling.”
Song said he wasn’t surprised someone called to report having seen Alex Ford with a camera: “I would be concerned if someone were videotaping around my house. We’re not only talking about burglaries, but homeland security, too. Why is this individual videotaping?”
Song said members of the sheriff’s department do not engage in racial profiling, but “criminal profiling.”
“If we see someone in Under Armour shorts and an athletic shirt who looks athletic going out for a run, are we going to stop him for that? Probably not,” Song said. “But if we see a guy driving around with windows tinted in a red hat, red shirt, red shoes, we’ll probably have some suspicions.”
“We have to find a fine balance,” Song continued, “that the community we serve is treated properly, so that’s what I want to get across. Our deputies are going to have to be professional, and they are, even if it’s a real gang member or bad guy or thief, we are professional. But we do have to do our job and make stops that might be uncomfortable for individuals who might not be the subject we are looking for.”
Alex Ford said each temporary detention has left him increasingly more uncomfortable.
“I’m never surprised when I’m stopped,” he said. “But with each stop, I get more fearful. The more I get stopped, the more opportunity for something bad to happen. I hope that every time I do get stopped, it has a good outcome and the gun isn’t pulled, but I don’t know about the next time. I don’t know what kind of day this person is having, if they’re having a bad day. So each time it’s frightening, you know?”
Song suggested that Alex Ford, who plans to move back to LCF after graduating, “get to know a lot of the neighbors.”
“So the people say, ‘Hey, that’s Alex, we know Alex,’” Song said. “So the neighbors will not be concerned. Because if we have residents who are calling and we have to go there, and it’s our job to make contact. We do have to make contact, especially when we make calls for service.”
“It’s just very unsettling,” Alex Ford said. “I understand that if I’m walking down the street and people haven’t seen me before they might question, ‘Why is there a black person walking in my neighborhood, because I don’t see that many black people.’ But people say they want more diversity, they say that they are advocating for these things when they really have this underlying racism. Unconscious bias is very real, so they will call.
“I guess, if I wanted to tell people in the neighborhood [anything]: I am here. There is a dark-skinned male with dreadlocks who is very much a part of this community, who walks around at times. And who would like to walk around more.”