Robert A. Harris Sr. says he has been stopped for “driving while black” in the past, but he was stopped Saturday for the first time for “running while black.”
Harris, who heads a youth prison-prevention project in Buffalo, says he caught a bus shortly before 9 a.m. Saturday near his Town of Tonawanda home, got off a short time later at Delaware Avenue and Sheridan Drive, then went to a nearby M&T Bank branch to cash a check.
Pretty uneventful, but the 51-year-old Harris had to run to catch a bus back home, he said Sunday.
And what a bus ride home it became, according to Harris.
He said he was sitting toward the back of the bus, one of just five or so passengers and the only African-American aboard except for the bus driver.
The last of the passengers boarded the bus about a mile and a half after the stop where Harris got on, he said. Shortly after that, Town of Tonawanda police stopped the bus, Harris said. One officer stayed near the bus driver. Two others began walking through the bus, he said.
Harris said he figured the officers wanted to question the last passengers to board. But instead, they walked past that couple and approached Harris.
“I was like, ‘What’s up?’ ” he recalled saying to the officers.
The officers, Harris said, told him they received a report of a suspicious black male wandering around a Walgreens drugstore parking lot on Sheridan Drive, that he was seen in the area, and that he was noticed running in the vicinity.
“I was running for the bus,” Harris said he told the officers. “All I did was run through the Walgreens parking lot to get on the bus. You can ask the bus driver. I was late for the bus. I waved her down to get on the bus.”
The officers requested Harris’ identification, then ran a computer check for any outstanding warrants. When none was found, the officers left the bus about 10 minutes after they arrived, Harris said. Harris then called a friend who was on the bus with him earlier in the morning. The friend, also African-American, had gotten off the bus with Harris, then walked along Delaware to catch another bus.
That man was also stopped by police, who checked to see if he had any arrest warrants, then they left when he had none, according to Harris.
The man did not want to be identified, Harris said. Harris described the incident as “textbook racial profiling.”
But Town of Tonawanda police deny that. A police operation into possible criminal activity in that area was under way Saturday, when Harris and his friend were noticed together, then split up before Harris was seen running from the bank, said Police Capt. Frank McNamara.
“We were looking into a possible crime in that area,” McNamara said. “We had a heavy police presence. He caught our attention by running from a bank.”
McNamara declined to disclose what police were investigating, saying the probe is continuing. But he said Harris and his friend were stopped as part of “official police business” and not racial profiling.
He noted that Harris did not file a complaint with the Police Department before complaining to the media. “If he wants to know more, he can come in, and I will tell him why he was stopped,” McNamara said. “He should file a formal complaint. It could have dispelled any misgivings he might have.”
Harris dismissed the idea of filing an official complaint. “Complaining to the police about the police? I’m smart enough not to do that,” he said.
Harris added that the police explanation sounds like a case of racial profiling. “So they saw me get off the bus, me go one way, my friend the other. I run to the bank. I run out of the bank,” he said. “That means they were watching us from the time we got off the bus.”
Harris added that while the police say they followed him because he ran out of the bank, the bank never reported being robbed, nor any criminal activity occurring there.
“It’s idiocy,” he said of the police explanation. “RWB – running while black.”
Harris is president of the Youth Prison Prevention Project, which works with youth, police and judges to help keep young people out of trouble and out of jail. As part of the 3-year-old project, Harris leads after school and middle school programs at Buffalo Alternative Middle School, where seventh- and eight-graders are offered a workshop to deal with such things as anger management, peer pressure and gang-violence intervention. The Prison Prevention Project also advocates for alternatives to incarceration for some nonviolent youth offenses, and works with youth when they are released to reduce the likelihood they will commit future crimes.
Harris started the program, he said, because of his own experiences. He had been in prison himself years ago, and got tired of seeing so many young people behind bars, he said.
Harris said he has lived in the Town of Tonawanda for the last two years. As a black man, he said, he has previously been stopped by police for what is commonly known as “driving while black,” but this is the first time he has been stopped for “running while black.”
He said he was initially going to “brush off” the Saturday incident with the town police, but as it became apparent to him the incident was racial profiling, he felt it important to speak out.
“I don’t know what outraged me more,” he said, “the fact that they detained me and the entire No. 35 bus or that they simultaneously detained my friend, which leads me to believe that this entire incident is a textbook case of racial profiling.”