It was almost too easy. The two New Orleans Police Department officers looked out their passenger-side window and saw green currency in the air, passing from one hand to another.
It was May 19, just past midnight, and NOPD officers Steven Lindsey and Joseph Lusk were working the night shift for the Eighth District -- the French Quarter station. With Lindsey at the wheel, the car approached the corner of Dauphine Street and Esplanade Avenue, right outside a Circle K store. There, the two officers saw what they describe in their Incident Report as "a hand-to-hand transaction, believed to be drug-related, between a white male and a black male standing at the corner of Esplanade and Dauphine." The black male was Rod Amis; the white male was his 28-year-old roommate. Both were taken away in handcuffs.
"I knew something was going on," Lindsey testified in court this past Thursday. "I saw money changing hands. It was the jerkiness of their hand motion that set us off."
News of Rod Amis' arrest flew through the Faubourg Marigny. One man shook his head when he heard about it. "People talk," he says, "and we all know who's into drugs. Rod isn't."
"I can't remember Rod doing anything besides just drinking a beer," says Jim Thorrick, Amis' former landlord. "He's an intelligent, fairly well-read guy who used to sit on my porch and smoke cigarettes, talk to people."
Passing the time in Orleans Parish Prison was much more difficult, especially for a 51-year-old man who'd never been arrested before. "Days inside last like months," writes Amis in a detailed chronicle of his stay that he posted onto his Web magazine (www.g21.net/mars353.htm).
In Amis' online 'zine, he describes his mind-numbing OPP routine. "We get up at four in the morning if we want to eat breakfast, we call out the last three digits of our case numbers twice a day, we walk single file everywhere we go." If the single-file line comes to a halt, inmates must face the wall and stare at it without talking, he writes.
Ten days after his arrest, Amis' bond was reduced, slashing his bail from $3,000 down to $400, with the caveat that he submit to weekly drug tests. His friends ponied up the cash, and finally Amis heard what he says everyone waits for -- his own name called over the tier's public address system, a pause, and then the words, "roll out."
Once free, it seemed as though Amis couldn't walk down the street without being asked about his arrest. "I was really embarrassed at first," Amis says. "Who wants everybody to know that you just got thrown in jail?"
Amis is well-known in the Marigny and the French Quarter from his various jobs -- Internet whiz, bicycle deliveryman, bartender. One co-worker connected Amis to lawyer Evelyn Adams, who became "absolutely convinced" of his innocence. She's now his defense attorney.
Michelle Embree, who met Amis while he was tending bar at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, heard about his arrest and immediately got on the phone. "We didn't think he'd have a fair shake if he couldn't pay for decent defense," says Embree. At the end of May, she organized a drag-show fundraiser to help him pay for his bail and legal fees. In the lower right-hand corner of the fundraiser's flyer was a photo of Amis and the words "Proceeds benefit Rod Amis -- another victim of NOPD's crime fabrication dept."
Strong words. That's because, says Embree, "There was no reason for the police to arrest him. To me, it sounded like they were suspicious of a white man and black man interacting."
On May 19, Rod Amis -- when instructed to do so -- leaned against the squad car, spread his legs, and prepared to be patted down by Officer Lindsey.
He had originally planned to be out on a date that night, but the woman he'd asked had called at the last minute to reschedule their plans. So he'd been sitting at home, having a cocktail, when his roommate convinced him to get out of the house and go to a friend's party on Dauphine Street. Amis insisted that they not arrive empty-handed. "We had to buy beer to bring along -- it's only good form," he says.
The two roomies set off for the party around midnight and stopped en route at the Circle K. There, Amis says, his roommate handed over seven dollars -- his share of the 12-pack -- and stayed outside to smoke a cigarette. Amis walked in and found the beer coolers locked -- not unusual for that time of night. He asked the clerk, a new hire, to open up the cooler for him. She flatly refused, telling him they weren't selling beer, he says. "She was fairly rude, and I thought she just had an attitude about me."
Amis gives the clerk's name. When approached at Circle K last week, the clerk says she remembers that evening -- because she'd watched the arrests. "He would have had to wait until I could go around to the back to get the beer," she says. But he simply didn't stick around long enough for her to do that, she says.
Amis says that he was the only person in the store at the time and that she didn't tell him to wait. Instead, he says, he walked outside, told his roommate what had happened and returned the seven dollars.
Then he saw an officer emerge from the fully marked NOPD squad car, which was parked near the corner on Dauphine Street, in the same space where squad cars often park while their occupants are getting cigarettes, snacks or cold drinks. This time, it was Officer Steve Lindsey, says Amis, and he was yelling, "Hey you, brother -- come over here."
Amis walked toward the car, and Lindsey asked him what he had handed the other guy. "Seven dollars," Amis told him. "We were going to buy beer, but the clerk told me they aren't selling any." On the witness stand last week, Lindsey testified that Amis had offered him that reason, but he'd told him to save it for court.
Amis says that Lindsey then asked, "You ever been arrested before?" Amis told him no. He says that Lindsey replied, "I find that hard to believe," and told Amis to spread his legs and lean against the car. As Amis was being frisked, he saw his roommate take off running, only to be tackled by Lusk.
Inside the roommate's pocket was a Carmex container. The officer opened it, revealing a small baggie of white powder.
The officers handcuffed both men and advised the roommate that he was under arrest for possession of cocaine. Amis, who had only cigarettes, $15, and housekeys in his possession, was told that he was under arrest for possession with intent to distribute -- in other words, drug dealing. If convicted, state mandatory minimums specify that the most lenient sentence he could receive is a two-year prison sentence.
Amis' roommate insisted to police that Amis didn't give him any drugs, something he later repeated in a sworn deposition.
"We think he did," Lusk replied, and placed them both in the squad car.
After the arrest, Lindsey and Lusk entered Amis' money into evidence along with some items from his roommate: the Carmex container and its contents, and a brown wallet containing about $50.
When the pair entered Orleans Parish Prison, they were searched again. There, says the roommate, deputies removed seven dollars in cash from his right-front pants pocket. He has a receipt from the OPP property room for that amount.
It was the beer money Amis had handed him, he says.
By late May, word of Amis' arrest had even spread to San Francisco, where Amis had lived and worked throughout the 1990s. When the news reached radio station KPOO, they aired a report about it.
News director Harrison Chastang remembers Amis, who freelanced for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, worked on high-profile political campaigns and wrote Internet columns until that boom ended. "Rod was your average hard-working guy, doing the dotcom thing," Chastang explains. Chastang says that he should have been surprised to hear about Amis' arrest. He was not. "Black men in this country know that this could happen to any of us," he says solemnly.
This sentiment is nothing new -- it has often been portrayed in movies, expressed in the media, and complained about in corner bars. Amis understands why the cops might feel the need to ask him questions. But, he believes, they made quick assumptions that an older black man talking with a younger white man on a corner could only be a drug dealer.
NOPD spokesperson Capt. Marlon Defillo disagrees. The NOPD, he says, is a nationwide leader in combating racial profiling. "We think we do a pretty good job in making sure that our officers are properly trained to look beyond a person's race," Defillo says.
Racial-profiling allegations are most common during drug patrols and arrests, says Monique Dixon, a staff attorney for the D.C.-based Advancement Project, which recently worked with two religious coalitions to create a proposal for neighborhood-police partnerships in New York City.
In New York, the clergy are asking the New York Police Department to issue "stop receipts" to anyone who is stopped and questioned by the police department, even if they aren't arrested. These receipts, which are already being used in Baltimore, allow communities of color to better track any disproportionate stops, Dixon says.
Segments of police-officer training might also need to be scrutinized to see if they reinforce stereotypes, say Dixon. For instance, some urban departments have target-shooting simulations where most of the figures that they shoot are people of color. "These subtle things can make a difference once that officer leaves training and goes out in the field," Dixon says.
Defillo insists that an arrest such as this has nothing to do with race, but was rather based on the officers' "reasonable suspicion" that they'd witnessed a drug deal.
Whether the officers had probable cause to arrest Amis is now a matter for the courts. Last Thursday, in front of Criminal District Judge Camille Buras, Lindsey and Amis each took the stand to give an account of what transpired outside the Circle K. Buras will rule on Thursday on whether the matter will go to trial.
Evelyn Adams, Amis' attorney, took a few minutes to discuss the case after she had exited the courtroom. As much as she believes in her client's innocence, she says, she doesn't think that the officers were either malicious or deliberately racist.
"It's hard to speculate," Adams says. "I think the officers thought they saw something, and they didn't see what they thought they saw."
Many times, says Adams, officers follow their gut instincts and they're right. But she says a case like this should prompt the officers and the department to ask themselves whether the race of the defendants caused the officers to reach any automatic assumptions.
"This case makes it apparent why some of those assumptions are improper," Adams says.