Rape fall-out: Search targets innocent black males

Kris Jones was walking along Ivy Road, heading home after work, when he saw a policeman drive by and then turn around at the 7-Eleven. "I'm talking to a friend on the phone and said, 'I bet you $5 I get stopped and harassed,'" he says.

When police announced last November that a serial rapist was at large, women weren't the only ones who became fearful of being targeted. Black males are finding themselves under increasing police scrutiny as possible suspects.

Jones, 21, did get stopped. "They said I had dilated pupils, and that was a description of the serial rapist," recounts Jones, who wonders how the officers saw his eyes from the car when he was walking away from them.

The latest bulletins picturing the rapist describe him as a six-foot-tall black male, in his mid 20s to late 30s, with an athletic build and a medium to dark complexion. After an April 26 assault, police released a sketch and noted that he has "unnaturally white" or "slightly bulging" eyes.

"That description is so ridiculous," says Jones. "That could look like anybody."

"Kris doesn't favor that description at all," says Ruth Johnson, Jones' supervisor in the cafeteria at the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center. Her son, Jerry Arrington, does.

Two months ago, Arrington had just gotten into town from Washington and was walking from the Greyhound station toward the university. "I walked by this cop," says Arrington. "He spoke to me and followed me about five blocks. Then six cops came from out of nowhere."

Police questioned him and then released him. "They wanted to know why I was walking through the university," says Arrington. "They said I looked out of place."

That wasn't his last encounter with law enforcement. Police called his mother and asked him to come in and provide a DNA sample. After Arrington provided the sample, he was eliminated as a suspect.

But he still captures police attention he's been stopped two more times. Arrington, 28 years old and 5'9", acknowledges that he resembles the sketch of the suspect. "I can understand why they're messing with me," he says. "I can't understand why they're messing with other guys who don't look anything like the drawing."

One of those is a 25 year old who works at the Kluge Rehab Center and who asks that his name not be used. "I'm 6'2-1/2", 217 pounds, and my beard is closely trimmed," he says. "My eyes are brown as hell."

After missing the bus after work one day, this man was walking on the Corner near Orbit when an officer stopped him and asked for identification. He complied and continued on.

"I got to Mellow Mushroom," he recalls. "Here come three cops screaming my name. I just gave them my name, and I'm hot and tired and in my work clothes. They said they wanted to question me about the rapist. I said, "Am I under arrest? Am I in trouble?" They said they wanted to hold me until a sergeant came." When the sergeant came, according to this would-be suspect, they let him go.

"I understand they're trying to do their job, but I don't think it's right to stereotype every black male," he says.

Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo says people come under suspicion in a number of ways, most often from someone seeing the composite sketch and calling the police.

As for those African-American males who are stopped on the street, Longo says, "The suspect is a black male, so race is an objective criterion."

Still, other factors influence whether someone is questioned, such as time of day and location. "It all has to add up to a reasonable suspicion, not a gut feeling," he says. And because most of the attacks have occurred around UVA, he calls that a "target-rich area."

So far, police have eliminated over 230 people by taking DNA samples. Longo defends the practice of asking for a DNA sample, which is obtained by rubbing a Q-Tip inside the mouth, a so-called buccal swab.

"With a buccal swab, I can confirm quickly whether you're a suspect," he explains. "It's far easier to do a swab than an investigation."

Longo says he hasn't received any complaints about black males being stopped by the police, and he expects his officers to confirm or dispel suspicions "professionally and within the confines of the law."

He urges anyone who feels the stops or questioning has risen to the level of harassment to "pick up the phone and call me."

Even with apologies from police officers the third time he was stopped, Jerry Arrington says, "I feel terrible about it. I've got to look over my shoulders. I'm scared. And the cops said they were getting desperate."

Kris Jones doesn't like the suspicious looks he gets. "On the Corner, an old white woman nearly walked into a light pole staring at me," he says. Now he tries to avoid the Corner. "I don't like going there because of being harassed. I worry that they'll slap cuffs on me."