Rodney and Angela Gillespie were excited when they returned July 1 to the United States, to the home they’d built in 2007 on a 2.7-acre parcel in a leafy section of upscale Chadds Ford. His job as a senior executive with AstraZeneca, the multinational pharmaceutical company, had taken them first to London for three years and then to Johannesburg for three years.
Capping their first week back, the couple spent the evening of July 7 with family and friends in Lambertville, N.J. Driving home just after midnight, Rodney turned the family’s rented black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo onto their heavily wooded, unlighted street near Baltimore Pike. That’s when their welcome home took an unforeseen turn.
Flashing blue lights and the jarring blare of police sirens signaled trouble for the couple and their 17-year-old daughter, Jaida, who was sleeping across the backseat. Their other daughter, Jasmyn, 22, was not in the car.
“My wife was asleep, my daughter was asleep, and I said, ‘Oh boy, here we go,’ ” Gillespie recalled in an interview at the family’s home. “I said, ‘I’m just going to pull in the driveway because obviously it’s dark, the street has no shoulder, I don’t feel safe here.’ ”
The rest of the story, as related by the Gillespies, is as chilling as any Hitchcock movie:
Moments after parking on their well-lighted circular driveway, the Gillespies, both 52 and married 25 years, weren’t sure if they would live or die, they said. The source of their fear was a rookie Pennsylvania State Police trooper.
Yelling loudly and with a hand on his gun, Trooper Christoper S. Johnson, 23, reached into the vehicle to turn off the ignition, but it was already turned off.
The couple, who are African American, recalled that Johnson, who is white, shouted questions, orders, and insults in rapid succession: How old are you? Why did you stop here? Don’t give me that s—! Get out of the car! Why are you driving a rental car? Do you have drugs? Guns? Is that your girlfriend in the car?
He eventually pulled Rodney Gillespie from the late-model SUV and handcuffed him.
Johnson — who had been on patrol only about two months, after graduating from the Police Academy in May — reached into Gillespie’s pants pocket and removed his wallet without consent, Gillespie said.
Two more state troopers — one white and one black — quickly arrived and soon began directing questions toward a stunned Angela, who remained in the front passenger seat, too afraid to reach for her phone to record the encounter, she said.
“It was terrifying,” said Angela Gillespie, crying as she recounted the incident. “I think the biggest thing for me was sitting there watching and listening to how they treated my husband. The yelling was at a level that was terrifying. My goal was to stay alive.”
The Newark, N.J., native said she found it ironic that the couple had experienced no racial prejudice in South Africa or in the United Kingdom, only to return to racial profiling by police on their own street in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“To be welcomed back this way just didn’t make sense,” she said. “This is not the America we left in 2013. We’ve come back to an elevated rage.”
The troopers freed Gillespie from the handcuffs after about 10 minutes, after his wife was allowed to use her phone to Google his name and show the troopers his online professional biography, the couple said.
Johnson issued Gillespie a $142.50 ticket for a yellow-line infraction, which Gillespie paid July 16 at Magisterial District Court in Glen Mills, and a $102 ticket for not stopping immediately, which was dismissed.
He said it was the first time he had been handcuffed. “It’s humiliating. I talk to my kids about doing the right thing. I raised them to do the right thing, and to get cuffed in front of my 17-year-old daughter and my wife, it’s embarrassing,” said Gillespie, an Englewood, N.J., native with a degree in commerce and engineering from Drexel University and an M.B.A. from the University of Washington.
“One thing my daughter said to me that really killed me was, ‘Dad, I can’t lose you. I can’t lose you.’ My daughter should not have to say something like that to me. What she witnessed that night is etched in her mind.”
State Police are investigating
The Gillespies filed a complaint about the incident with the State Police on July 24 and are considering a lawsuit, according to their attorney, Samuel C. Stretton.
David La Torre, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the union that represents state troopers, declined to comment on the substance of the alleged incident, saying the union had just learned of the complaint Wednesday. “We would not comment until an investigation would take place that takes into account all sides of the story,” he said in an email.
Ryan Tarkowski, spokesperson for the State Police, also cited the ongoing internal investigation in declining to comment on specifics of the incident.
“The Pennsylvania State Police takes any allegations of racial profiling or bias-based policing very seriously,” Tarkowski said in an email. “If a complaint is received, it is thoroughly investigated.”
State Police investigators interviewed the Gillespies at their residence Wednesday and showed them police dashcam footage of the traffic stop, Gillespie said. It was hard to watch, he said. “I just saw the video and it’s very clear I was racially profiled,” Gillespie said, adding that the officers can be heard on the video discussing whether to write a ticket.
Attorney Stretton alleges that Johnson wrote the traffic violations to cover up his own misconduct.
“The real issue,” Stretton said Tuesday, “is to change the conduct of the police, because they overreacted. The reason I think they overreacted is they thought a black man did not have a right to be in this rich, white neighborhood.”
Stretton, who is white, believes the Gillespies were victims of “driving while black,” a nagging suspicion by many African Americans that they are being stopped and mistreated by police officers often based largely on the color of their skin.
The largest study on police stops in the United States was conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project, which examined data from about 100 million traffic stops from 2011 to 2017 from 21 state patrolling agencies and 29 cities including Philadelphia.
The study, released earlier this year, found that black and Latino drivers are stopped and searched 1½ to 2 times more often than whites, yet whites are more likely found to possess illegal items such as drugs and weapons.
The alleged traffic violation that prompted Johnson to pull Gillespie over was failure to drive within a single lane, or crossing the double yellow line. If this occurred, it would mean that Gillespie made a wide right turn from Webb Road onto his street, Atwater Road.
The streets are narrow at the intersection, making it possible for a car’s left tires to touch or cross the yellow lines on Webb while turning right onto Atwater, but Gillespie does not recall committing the alleged infraction.
But even if he had, he wonders, why was a state trooper following him on a residential street after midnight, and why did the trooper pull him over for such a minor infraction, a summary offense that carries no jail time?
The Gillespies said the troopers initially did not say they had been stopped for crossing the yellow lines, only that the community had experienced an uptick in burglaries. Johnson also told them that he first spotted their SUV on Baltimore Pike near Harvey Road. That’s two miles from their house, which means they were being followed long before he was accused of crossing the yellow lines, Gillespie said.
“I think I was completely targeted,” he said. “This is a very nice, affluent neighborhood. A black guy driving. I guess he thought I was driving by myself and he wanted to follow and see,” he said, noting that his wife’s seat was reclined.
Michael Coard, a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney and civil rights activist to whom the Gillespies turned for legal advice, said the traffic stop had all the hallmarks of racial profiling.
“This is not just driving while black, but driving while black with an uppity attitude. What I mean is that not only are you black, but you live in this neighborhood, and that’s just not right. You should not be here!” he said sarcastically.
“Would they have handcuffed a white man in his driveway with his wife and daughter in the car? The answer is no. Would they have asked, ‘What are you doing around here?’ And, ‘Is this really your house?’ That’s just crazy,” said Coard.
Tarkowski, the State Police spokesperson, noted that cadets are trained to be aware of, and to avoid, racial profiling and biased-based profiling. “The training contains information on the origins and definitions of racial profiling, State Police policy prohibiting racial profiling, and the negative impact racial profiling has on the community. In addition, cadets receive training in cultural diversity,” he said.
According to State Police statistics released to The Inquirer, the 4,579-member State Police force is 86.8% white male, 6.11% white female, and 6.9% minority. Of the 19 bias-based profiling complaints lodged in 2018, troopers were cleared of wrongdoing in each case.
Tarkowski on Tuesday declined to provide the police dashcam footage of the Chadds Ford incident to The Inquirer.
In the Gillespies’ July 24 complaint, Stretton asked the State Police for footage of the incident but has yet to receive it.
Meanwhile, Gillespie said he’s speaking out about the traffic stop in hopes that it will lead State Police to address the couple’s concerns and to train troopers to better interact with motorists of color.
“I have a little bit of means to fight back. But imagine the person who doesn’t have the means to fight back. They don’t have a voice. I have a voice. So it’s easy for me to pay a fine and walk away and say, ‘Terribly sorry it happened.’ But it’s hard for me to just walk away from this one without holding people accountable,” he said.
“If I had a message, I would say: It doesn’t matter who you are, when they see us they make assumptions. I don’t care if you’re the CEO or you’re the street sweeper or you’re unemployed. It doesn’t make a difference.”