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    It’s Tae-Ahn Lea’s one day off and he’s set to chill. No nine-to-nine hustle selling cars at Oxmoor Ford Lincoln, where he started working earlier this summer after graduating from Central High School, class of ’18. He watches Z Nation on his phone in his room, where he’ll play his drums or piano or with Raphael, his lizard named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character. A poster hangs on the wall with his goals — start a barbershop, own two small houses by 21 — and inspirational quotes, like “Have desire in what you do” from that book his dad gave him titled Think and Grow Rich. His senior-night poster is filled with notes from friends: “You’ll do great in life!” “Keep going!”

    Lea goes to the Thorntons near his house in Park DuValle, in west Louisville. The newly 18-year-old notices someone noticing him at the gas pump. Bulletproof vest, unmarked car. He goes inside for some ATM cash, Funyuns and a slush. He sees another unmarked car pull up. Lea hops into his shiny orange Dodge Charger. It’s Aug. 9, just after 6 p.m. The late-afternoon heat beats down. Some dark clouds suggest a storm.

    Lea makes a right-hand turn from Algonquin Parkway into the left lane of northbound Dixie Highway. He hears the police siren. He turns on his blinker and pulls over. Lea does everything he has practiced over and over with his mother: secures his hands on the wheel, asks before reaching for his wallet, gets his insurance information from the sunglasses compartment so the officers can’t think he’s reaching down for a gun. He’s careful not to make any sudden movements.

    For a second, he trusts the officer at his window, who starts and ends sentences with a casual “man.” Then Lea’s mom calls back — he’d called to say he was being followed — and he puts her on speaker for precaution. Then, according to police body-camera footage, the officer’s hand is inside the car, unlocking the door, popping it open, moving Lea’s phone and wallet off his lap and grabbing his wrists. Lea, confused and scared, says, “Mama, they taking me out of the vehicle.”

    LMPD’s Ninth Mobile division is assigned to Louisville’s most dangerous neighborhoods to apprehend violent criminals and confiscate guns (1,700 in three years) and drugs. One of the officers tells Lea, “We’re gonna stop 30 more people after you.” But before they run Lea’s license, before they learn that he has a clean record, a K-9 makes a playground of the Charger, even though Lea denies consent. The dog’s handler says there was “a hit,” but Lea knows there’s nothing for them to find. As one friend of the family describes Lea: “He’s a square bear from Delaware.” Lea knows how the police see him, though — a young black man in that car.

    The handcuffs clasp Lea’s wrists behind his back as he shuffles his feet side to side. He wants to go home. He wants off this busy street where cars are driving by and looking at him, people probably thinking, “It must be bad.” One of the officers says, “I’m not going to fight you and I’m certainly not going to chase you,” as Lea stands handcuffed, his head down.

    Lea has been a little snappy, has been cussing (he’ll later say he normally doesn’t), but the whole situation pisses him off. All his life he’s tried to do everything right, and now this? As the K-9 officer rips through Lea’s trunk, the senior-year honor roll disappears. As the officer mangles a McDonald’s bag, the quote next to Lea’s suited-up yearbook pic — “Central High School taught me how to reed ann right” — loses its quirk. (Lea, a Gemini, says the opposite of his chill is class clown.) As the officers use a special device to pop off part of a door panel, Lea is uncrowned as Mr. Central.

    His mother, Tija Jackson, is here. This is her only son. This is the son she took to Little League games as a boy, the son she screams for as the River City Drum Corps marches down the road, her Tae — “drummer boy” or “Little Nick Cannon,” as people call him — a fierce force on the drum line, his quads like a heartbeat. This is her heartbeat. She keeps up with the news too much and knows how these traffic stops can end. Jackson — who works as a private investigator, bailiff and juvenile officer — knows to stand back so she doesn’t interrupt the scene. The K-9 officer approaches to, he says, “calm her down,” though she was just filming on Facebook Live. “I appreciate y’all being out here for violent crimes,” she says. “But my son’s a violent nothing.”

    Two more officers arrive, which makes five, plus the dog. About 20 minutes have passed since Lea was pulled over.

    An officer asks Lea, seriously or sarcastically, “Why do you have, like, this negative view toward the police? What’s ever happened in your life personally? Can you give me a good explanation?”

    Lea tells the officer that he has a “good-ass” job and got scholarships to go to college.

    The officer says, “We don’t know who you are.

    “It’s not like I have X-ray vision.

    “You can continue with your negative view toward me.

    “I’m just trying to understand.”

    Lea says, “You’ll never understand.”

    The officers find nothing in the car.

    Before the officer removes Lea’s handcuffs, he asks, “Are you going to fight me or run?” Then: “I know you’re mad. It is what it is.”

    When another officer hands over the traffic citation, he asks, “Do you understand the reason why you’re stopped?”

    Lea looks at the ticket and doesn’t respond because, no, he doesn’t.

    “Alrighty, have a wonderful day,” the officer says.

    Lea drives one block before Jackson has to switch sides with him and take the wheel. Jackson says, “There was nothing you could do. You did everything right.”

    Eventually, in court, the charge against Lea for making an improper turn will be dismissed, but will remain on his record. Lea’s attorney, Lonita Baker, will request a written police report of the incident and discover there isn’t one. Baker will request the officers’ body-camera footage. The condensed, 32-minute video will have almost 500,000 views between Facebook and YouTube in the few weeks after it’s released at the end of January. Comments flow in: “They brand us mentally by putting cuffs on us at least once hoping we get used to it.” “I’m a veteran cop…cops like you are why we have the issues that we do.” “While they nastily abuse their power they speak all calm and nice to cover themselves.” “Thank God mom showed up…That this was not at night.”

    A neighbor kid will be on a bike one day and say, “Hey, I saw your video,” and Lea will be embarrassed, though now he hopes the video raises awareness. Friends and family will tell him they’re sorry this happened to him, that he didn’t deserve it. He will start seeing a therapist. He’ll eventually drive the Charger again when his mom needs him to pick up his sister from dance, saying “Oh, Jesus” to herself as he walks out the door. He’ll come up with the saying: “When I made that right, and I seen them lights, I thought I was ready to lose my life.” Baker will file a civil complaint on behalf of Lea. An LMPD spokesperson will say the department is aware of the video and that chief Steve Conrad has initiated an internal investigation, and will discipline accordingly if he finds a violation.

    Lea will keep selling cars until he starts at Tri-City Barber College in the fall. He’ll find comfort at school, working the razor, giving people something that makes them look good, feel good. 

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Right Turn of Tae-Ahn Lea." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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    Photo by Joon Kim,

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