'Jump-Outs': D.C.'s Scarier Version of 'Stop-and-Frisk'

Black Lives Matter
NFL players have been protesting police brutality. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Two years ago, Cedric Harper and his friends stopped at a convenience store in southeast Washington, D.C., after their high school homecoming to buy candy and Gatorade. As they left the store, Harper says, an unmarked truck sped over to them and four police officers in bulletproof vests jumped out, guns drawn.

These weren't ordinary police handguns, he recalls, but big, tactical weapons. Harper, now 18, says the police threw him against a brick wall and searched him. The officers gave no reason for the stop, and after they found nothing suspicious, they let the kids go. The police offered no apology and appeared to make no record of the encounter, he says.

It was one of at least 10 so-called "jump-outs" Harper has endured; they are now such everyday occurrences that he doesn't think to report them or even tell his parents. "It's kind of a regular thing," he says. "What's the point of telling anyone?"

President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st-Century Policing held its first "listening session" in D.C. this week, while heated debate is going on within the district over the controversial police tactic that activists say is traumatizing black communities. Locals say anyone is a target, especially young black men, while the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) says it hasn't used this policing tactic for at least 15 years, and even then, it was employed only for high-risk arrests.

"Jump-outs" became notorious during MPD drug stings in the 1980s, when open-air drug markets plagued D.C. and, according to The Washington Post, kids in schoolyards would imitate drug busts, role-playing jump-out squads and hustlers, using crushed chalk in sandwich bags as the "drugs." "Nobody wants to be the jump-outs," a 9-year-old told the Post, adding, "The hustlers get to keep all the money."

Though police have eradicated those drug markets, residents still yell "jump-out" when undercover officers on lookout are spotted in a neighborhood. "It's almost like a scene from The Wire," says criminal defense lawyer Patrice A. Sulton.

As the national conversation about racial bias in policing and the militarization of police departments intensifies, community activists in D.C. say they've had enough of the jump-outs and have enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others to tell police leadership that this must stop. But that's difficult to do when MPD officials deny that it has jump-out squads. MPD Chief Cathy Lanier recently referred to such squads as a "fantasy."

The tactic sounds like a souped-up version of the New York City Police Department's much-maligned "stop-and-frisk" policy, which the police commissioner promised to reform last year. But while the MPD's regulations do permit stop-and-frisks, jump-outs would violate those rules, based on descriptions from victims and activists. For example, a stop for reasonable suspicion is not supposed to exceed 10 minutes, an officer must be clear about the reason for the stop, and the officer must file paperwork afterward. Civil rights lawyers say that in many cases of jump-outs, none of that is happening.

Armed with arrest records and "hundreds of anecdotal stories," ACLU lawyers have testified in court and before the D.C. City Council that jump-outs are illegal and target people of color. "Jump-outs are one of the strategies and tactics that make up this entire matrix of policies and practices that police use in black communities to aggressively pursue low-level offenses," says Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director in D.C. for the ACLU. Sadanandan, who regularly trains students in how to interact with the police, says she's heard jump-out stories from children as young as 11.

In 2013, Sadanandan penned an opinion piece in the Post about jump-outs. A year later, after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, several D.C. communities mobilized to tackle the issue. Last October, a City Council committee held hearings to discuss what residents called racially biased policing, including the use of jump-outs, and in December a Change.org petition against the tactic had 2,000 signatures.

"We don't use controversial tactics," Chief Lanier said in a statement during one of those City Council hearings. "There are no jump-out units in MPD," she added, explaining that activists were likely referring to vice units, responsible for covert drug busts. During such operations, she said, four to six undercover officers wearing police vests "pull into the block, jump out of the car and arrest those observed in the drug transaction.... That tactic is not used nearly as often as it was in the late '90s and early 2000s."

Lanier tells Newsweek that the MPD has discredited many of the alleged jump-outs and that accusers were often unable to provide basic details, or that the incidents involved other law enforcement agencies, or happened outside of the district. "An 11-year-old telling a story, and then the ACLU retelling that story, is not a fact," she says.

Representatives from the U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police and Metro Transit Police Department, all agencies that make arrests in the district, say they do not conduct jump-outs.

Cathy Lanier
Cathy Lanier, D.C.’s police chief, denies that her department has “jump-out” squads. Lanier is pictured in September 2013 during the Washington Navy Yard shooting. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Kristopher Baumann, a former chairman of the local police union and a former MPD officer for 12 years, backs up Lanier. "There is something we call jump-outs in a limited manner, but those are specific tactics for specific situations…. What the ACLU and the City Council are talking about...that a patrol car simply drives into a neighborhood and officers jump out and start grabbing people, I haven't seen that…. When you take apart the lawsuits," he says, referring to cases involving jump-outs that the ACLU has defended, "it is fiction."

High school junior Ishmael Reid, 17, says his jump-out experiences were far from fiction. After dinner one night about a year ago, he and a friend were walking around in southeast D.C., near the Eastern Market metro stop, when Reid says an unmarked truck pulled up and its passengers beamed bright flashlights at them.

"I didn't know who it was," Reid says. "I was scared. I thought it was somebody trying to grab me, throw me in the trunk or something."

He says about five officers jumped out, all of them in civilian clothes and one in an unmarked tactical vest. Another had his handgun drawn. The reason for the stop, Reid recalls the officer saying, was that from the way Reid was walking, it looked as if he had a gun in his waistband. "He told me, 'Don't harass anyone on the street,' and they started laughing.

"[Jump-outs are] a normal thing, especially from where I grew up," he says. "You just get over it. You don't bother trying to find out who the police officers were and stuff like that because it happens to almost everyone that you know.… I really can't name one of my friends who hasn't had a jump-out happen to them."

Jump-outs are said to happen most in community district 7, in southeast D.C., which had the district's highest homicide rate in 2008 and the second highest in 2012, the year for which data was last publicly available.

According to the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 8 of 10 adults arrested in D.C. between 2009 and 2011 were African-American, even though the populations of adult African-Americans and whites were about the same. Around 59 percent of MPD officers are black, Lanier has said, a figure she uses to beat back accusations of racial policing, though Ronald Hampton, former executive director of the National Black Police Association and a retired MPD officer, says the statistic is moot.

"[Black officers] do what they get paid to do," he says. "As a young black police officer, if you want to be one of the guys, you want to be successful, you have got to do what [white officers] do."

"Either she has no control over her officers or she's just completely oblivious to what they're doing," says Sulton, the criminal defense lawyer, about Lanier and jump-outs. "It's not in anyone's imagination."