The next time a black man says he was racially profiled, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, thanks to the bizarre and infuriating case of Shai Werts.
Werts is the Georgia Southern University quarterback now nationally infamous for bird poop.
He was arrested on July 31 in Saluda County, S.C., as he drove back to school after visiting his family. As you may have seen, deputies stopped him for speeding and arrested him for cocaine possession — which they claimed was the white substance they saw on the hood of Werts’ car.
Yes, you read that right. They said they found cocaine. On. The. Hood. Of. His. Car.
The encounter offered some true theater of the absurd, captured on body camera:
Deputy: What’s that white stuff on your hood, man?
Werts: Bird (expletive).
Deputy: Bird (expletive)? That ain’t bird (expletive)!
Werts: I promise you, that’s bird doo-doo.
Deputy: I promise you, it’s not though.
Werts: I swear to God, that’s bird doo-doo.
Deputy: Well, I swear to God, it’s not. I just tested it and it turned pink.
The deputy’s drug field test determined that the dried white substance splashed across Werts’ hood was cocaine.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
Later testing determined what any cognizant person would have surmised — that it was not an illegal substance. South Carolina prosecutors dropped the charge.
The origin of that substance is still undetermined because, well, law enforcement doesn’t test for bird doo-doo. Werts told the cop he had earlier tried to wash off the windshield, which spread the substance. Police theorized Werts tried to toss coke from his speeding car and it landed and stuck all over his hood. Apparently defying physics. And logic.
The whole encounter demonstrated what seems to be racial profiling mixed with questionable policing and a dose of gullibility.
Video of the stop shows a squad car following Werts’ 2016 Dodge Charger with its hazard lights flashing. Police said they clocked him going 78 mph on the country highway. Seeing the blue lights, Werts called 911 to say he was looking for a lighted — and safe — place to pull over. He told police his mom told him to do that.
“It’s a sad state of affairs, but that’s what African American parents have to tell their kids,” his attorney W. Townes Jones told me.
The officer who stopped Werts was angry because Werts did not immediately pull over. The officer accused Werts of trying to evade him. Less than a minute after getting out of his car, Werts was being handcuffed.
I called the Saluda Sheriff’s Office (the county has 20,000 residents and is near Columbia, S.C.) and later emailed questions. But they provided no response other than to say they needed a Freedom of Information Act request. I told them they had my questions.
I called a couple of lawyers to ask them to watch the tape and give their impressions.
First, I called Gerald Griggs, who has handled many drug cases, including an equally bone-headed bust in Cartersville, where 70 young folks were arrested for possession of marijuana when less than an ounce of weed was found at a party.
In Werts’ case, “Police made a stop and once they approached, a secondary profile seemed to occur,” Griggs said.
In other words, the cops didn’t stop Werts because he was black, but once they saw he was, he got the second- and third-degree. “When they got to the car they saw a young African American man in a nice car, they thought he was a drug trafficker and they started searching to prove that,” Griggs said.
Not long after plopping the cuffed Werts into the back of a squad car, a team of three officers dug through his car, rifling through the console and unzipping three bags while unloading a big duffel bag on the trunk.
J. Tom Morgan, who was district attorney of DeKalb County, watched the video and said: “That search is not legal. They were going through that guy’s bags. But there was no probable cause. That stop is wrong on many levels.”
I suppose Saluda’s Keystone Cops would argue the field test showed cocaine, which gave them probable cause. But that came AFTER most of the searching.
They really, really wanted to pin something on Werts. It was obviously a slower night than usual in Saluda County.
In the trunk, they found a cigar box and a Yeti cooler. A cop mentioned those were expensive items, to which the arresting officer said, “Then he’s dealing dope. That’s what it looks like.”
As a cop opened the cooler, the deputy anxiously asked, “Cocaine?” Then he said, “Nah,” obviously disappointed.
Another side note in this saga: The video shows that the arresting officer’s cellphone screen had a red, white and blue skull fashioned off “The Punisher,” a comic strip based on a crime victim who becomes a homicidal avenger, killing criminals.
The image has connected with the types of officers who fancy themselves as “Warriors.” The image became popular after Chris Kyle, the subject of “American Sniper,” started using it. In his autobiography, he wrote, “We wanted people to know, ‘We’re here and we want to (expletive) with you.’ ”
Maybe Saluda County can stencil that on their vehicles. It would certainly be more manly than “We Serve and Protect.”
Werts’ attorney told me Tuesday he was impressed with his client’s demeanor during and after the traffic stop.
“My client was being respectful and reserved and telling his truth — which turned out to be the truth. They just would not listen to him,” Jones said. “It’s amazing how many people get frustrated when they are not being heard.”
Yeah, but don’t people who are hiding something from the cops always claim they aren’t up to anything bad?
“There was nothing about him that said he was using cocaine,” Jones responded. “They never gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
So where do we go from here?
Werts was briefly suspended from his college football team, but he will be there to lead Georgia Southern in a David vs. Goliath encounter against Louisiana State University.
“Shai said he wants me to continue to look into this; that this is bigger than him,” the lawyer said. “This is about a lot of young men across the country who don’t have the same support system.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.