He's 31, he's a lawyer, and he's still getting stopped by the police
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Late one afternoon in March 2018, I had just left work to meet a friend in Brooklyn when cops stopped me on the street. I had just graduated from law school, so I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. I invoked my rights, but it didn't matter. They still tried to get me to admit to something I didn't do.
After seven long hours in the precinct, they told me I could leave without charging me with anything. I had a big test coming up the next morning—the MPRE, the professional ethics portion of the bar exam. By the time I returned home from the precinct around 2 a.m., I couldn’t sleep. I was still going on adrenaline.
Still, I showed up and took the exam. And I passed. But when I got home, that’s when it all hit. That’s when I started crying and thinking about how, even at this point in my life, despite everything I have accomplished, this is still happening to me.
The first time, when I was 15, I was leaving my apartment building to walk my dog. I lived on the second floor, so I took the stairs down like I always did. As I was coming down, I noticed several firemen in the hallway. I guessed that somebody had gotten stuck in the elevator.
When I came back and tried to go back up the stairs, one of the firefighters said, “You can’t be in here.” I tried to explain that I lived there and always took those stairs. Then one of the firefighters signaled to two cops in the area.
All of a sudden, I was being lifted by the collar of my shirt and thrown up against the mailboxes on the wall. I felt like I was a full 2 feet in the air, but who really knows.
My immediate reflex was to grab onto the person who was grabbing me. Then the cop slammed me to the ground, pinned me to the floor with his knees on my shoulders and he just started to beat me up. My face, the back of my head. He picked me up, put me in handcuffs and put me in the back of the cop car.
He must have realized that I was really young because I could tell he started getting a little nervous.
When the cop asked how I was doing, I started cursing at him. Meanwhile, my dad, who had joined me in the back of the cop car, was trying to calm me down.
All I felt was rage. It was just anger.
When we got to the precinct, they said, “We can charge you with assaulting an officer, but because you are 15, we won’t. Sign your name in a book, and that’s it. Nothing will happen to you.”
But that wasn’t my last encounter with the police.
‘I’m going to fight this’
A few years later, I was going to college in New York City, and one day I was walking back from class when I saw this cop riding past me on his scooter. We locked eyes. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but once I got to the corner, he pulled up beside me. He asked for my ID, and when I asked him why he wanted to see it, he said, “It looks like you have a gun on you.” As he’s saying that, he starts patting me down. I’m thinking, [expletive] get shot and killed by the New York Police Department all the time. It was just safer for me to submit.
Then another patrol car came.
That cop got out, and then the first cop told me, All right, now you’re getting the full treatment. He threw me up against the wall, searched me, dumped everything out of my pockets and threw it on the floor. Three cops were surrounding me while I was on the ground. We were on the corner near my bodega and my laundromat. It was around 2 p.m., so kids were coming out of school. The people around there knew me. I felt embarrassed.
Then the cop says, “Let me get your address.” I tell him I live on this avenue between this and this street. He says, “You’re lying to me. Tell me your address.” I tell him the same thing. Again he goes, “You’re lying to me. Tell me your address. If you don’t give me the right address, it’s a crime.” I tell it to him again, and he tells me you can’t live on an avenue between two streets.
I had to explain to him that avenues go this direction and streets go this direction. In New York, you can live on an avenue between two streets. After, he wrote me a ticket for disorderly conduct.
As I’m walking away, I say, “You think I’m some young dumb kid that’s not going to stand up for myself, but I am, and I will, and I’m going to fight this.” He laughed and he said, “Go ahead. I love it when you fight it. You’re not going to win.”
Later, I would win the Floyd v. City of New York class-action lawsuit challenging unconstitutional stop and frisks by the NYPD with this cited as the first incident.
When I got home, I called my parents to tell them what happened and I started crying, just really upset with what had just happened. I was a college kid doing what society was telling me I was supposed to do.
After that, I knew I had to go to law school. I had stood up in this big legal case, and I couldn’t sit back down. I had to continue the fight.
During my first semester at law school, I saw Professor Babe Howell speak.
She was formerly a public defender in Harlem, a law clerk, and a housing rights advocate. Just the way she spoke, her intensity, her intellect, her ability to challenge the system, her passion. She’s a warrior, and I’m a warrior. I thought, This is who I’m going to be.
It was that moment when I realized there was no other role for me in the justice system than being a public defender.
It’s more than just a job for me. It’s personal. I believe in the work I do. I challenge the system for my clients, for myself, for the future people who may have to come through the system. I can relate to the clients who sit across from me. I can say that I’ve been in their shoes.
When a cop stops you, it’s a life-and-death situation. The police kill people. You don’t have time to emotionally react to it. It’s dangerous to emotionally react. You’re in survival mode.
Getting stopped today feels the same as it was years ago, like I am still that 15-year-old boy. Scared, vulnerable and embarrassed. When you’re stopped by the cops, they have the control.
Walking to and from work, I look like I belong in the courthouse. I fit in only because I have on a suit, and I’m holding a bag. People know me so I feel a little bit safer.
But still, every time I step outside my house, I plan for how I might interact with a cop, what might happen and the different ways it could happen. How am I going to react? There’s not a time when I take my dog for a walk in my own neighborhood when those thoughts don’t run through my head.
David Ourlicht, 31, is a public defender with the Legal Aid Society in New York City after graduating from the CUNY School of Law. He was a lead plaintiff in the Floyd v. City of New York class-action lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices.
In an emailed statement, an NYPD spokesperson said the department had no information on file pertaining to the 2018 stop described by Ourlicht. The spokesperson also said there was no information immediately available about the incident Ourlicht says took place when he was 15 because it was too long ago. In 2013, a federal court held that Ourlicht and others were subjected to illegal profiling by city police, finding his account of another stop “generally more credible” than that of police.
This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Updated on July 24 to remove a stock image showing a young boy being searched by police.