An ambitious and talented student of law and policy, Mohammed Alam has also been a committed activist to ending the use of the New York Police Department’s abusive and discriminatory Stop and Frisk policy. Here he shares his own story of police harassment that happened earlier this year.
We publish Alam’s account just days after the tragic death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, a few weeks after the settlement of a civil suit against the City of New York by the Central Park Five, and six months after Mayor deBlasio announced he would not appeal a federal judge’s ruling that Stop and Frisk is discriminatory and requires reform.
by Mohammed Alam, CCNY ’14, Colin Powell School Community Engagement Fellow Alumnus
This year I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the City College of New York. And this year I was also stopped, harassed, thrown in a jail cell, and denied my civil rights by the NYPD. The following is my account of an event that, in the most real way, changed my understanding of and trust in law and justice.
On a cold and tiring Monday night last March, I was driving home from a meeting in Brooklyn. This was not out of the ordinary; I attend this community meeting on the first Monday of every month and had done so for well over a year. What was out of the ordinary was what followed next.
I usually get a bit lost navigating the streets of the inner borough, so I followed my GPS. While focusing on the route, I noticed flashing ambulance lights, so I switched lanes to let them pass, and turned back to my GPS. It was dark and I was sleepy, so I made sure to drive slow and as safely as possible. I had gone a few more blocks before realizing that the ambulance hadn’t passed by me; I still saw the lights, but there were no accompanying sirens.
To my surprise it was a police van, and it seemed to be inches away from my back bumper. Panicked, I came to a complete stop and turned off the engine.
I’d never been pulled over before, but expected what I thought was standard procedure: an officer approaches and asks for license and registration. This is not what happened to me. I was approached by multiple officers on both sides of the car screaming, demanding me to roll down my windows, put my car keys on top of the car and open the door from the outside as I slowly exit my vehicle. Shaken, I did as they asked.
Upon exiting the car, any confidence I had that I could talk myself out of the misunderstanding was shattered. Five police officers pointed guns in my face. Without giving me even a moment to speak, I was pushed up against my car and frisked—a process that was repeated by another officer after the first finished. The other officers went through my car, taking things out and trying to find, I suppose, something incriminating. All they found was my coat, a bag filled with textbooks and paperwork, some bills, and candy wrappers. There were also some old boxes in the trunk. Incriminating stuff, obviously.
They proceeded to interrogate me, asking if I had been drinking. I shook with anger—I don’t drink alcohol. Then they asked me if I possessed and consumed illicit drugs. Livid, I demanded to know if they found anything in the car, and told them that if they really wanted to know they could drug test me. The cops didn’t respond well to that at all. They pushed me up against the backside of my car, handcuffed me, and took me to the local precinct. I was put under arrest, yet I wasn’t read my Miranda rights.
I sat in a very dirty cell for at least two hours. The odor was awful. I was falsely charged with attempting to run away from an officer in hot pursuit, reckless driving, and disorderly conduct against an officer.
After a few more hours, I was processed and sent off to central booking. For now, I’ll skip the depressing details of the twelve hours I spent in central booking. I was assigned a public defender the following day who has been a lifesaver.
My lawyer knew all of these charges were garbage, that the police had no claim to anything that happened, and that I was basically harassed for no reason. He assured me all the charges would be dropped, even if he had to eventually go to trial to make sure of it.
For three months, I bounced from court date to court date before the judge gave me a $50 ticket for having tints on my car windows. All of the charges were dropped, and the case was sealed. The judge expressed to both sides his annoyance at all the time he had wasted dealing with non-issues.
When I was finally able to retrieve my car months later, it was returned to me with all its tires slashed, cracks in the windows, broken tail and headlights, a messed-up transmission, no car keys, and a broken door handle.
I have lived all of my life following the rule of law. I have always appreciated all of the structures and mechanisms in place in society to keep things in order. For a while now I’ve realized that these structures and mechanisms are severely broken. They have been corrupted and stripped of their true purpose—that of maintaining a peaceful society, and to serve and protect people.
The worst part of this is not the minority number of police officers that abuse their power, it’s that there isn’t a reliable check on that power in the first place. Elected officials, and in most cases, judges protect the officers’ ability to do what they do. Meanwhile, the risk of an American being a victim of terrorism is far outweighed by the chances of being killed by a police officer. According to a short film titledRelease Us, which documents police brutality in the United States, there were more Americans killed by police officers than soldiers killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012.
A great injustice was done to me. It’s an experience I will never forget. I was falsely arrested, discriminated against, harassed, frisked, dragged through court, and made to pay a meaningless ticket. Rather than let the experience break me, it has reinforced my ever-growing conviction that I will commit myself to fixing the broken justice system by going into public service work, and eventually law school, with hopes to one day occupy public office.
We need elected officials that care more, and are willing to do something to correct these wrongs. We need better judges to protect our rights. And we need more professional officers who know the law and respect it on duty. What are we supposed to do when we are in trouble and need help? I was always taught to dial 911. But what if you need to call 911 on itself?
Mohammed Alam is a Muslim Bengali-American, the first American born in his family, a long-standing community organizer, and a public servant. He graduated from The City College of New York, with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science and a minor in Public Policy and Public Affairs. He was a Community Engagement Fellow and Student Ambassador at the Colin Powell Center for Leadership and Service; a Legal Scholar in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies; a Public Management Fellow, Rosenberg-Humphrey Scholar and a Josh & Judy Weston Scholar in the Charles Rangel Center. Mohammed founded and was President and Chairman of the Roosevelt Institute at the City College of New York; Vice President Emeritus and Board Member of the Government & Law Society; and elected Executive Vice President in the Undergraduate Student Government. He has previously worked for U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the Hill, U.S Congressman Charles Rangel in Harlem, and Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn. Mohammed spent the summer of 2012 working as a Volunteer Associate in the White House, Executive Office of the President. In the spring of 2012 he was awarded the APO Scholarship Award from the Department of Political Science for Academia and Leadership. He hopes to later pursue a law degree and continue his work in the service of the public.