Aahtrell Johnson remembered the police car rolling up, just before he was about to take his shot at the basket under the pine trees. It was 2016, and his neighbor had called 911, complaining that he was getting loud in the street. A white officer named Bobby White had been sent to respond.
As Mr. White, a Florida native with a trimmed goatee, approached Mr. Johnson, who is Black, the officer could see the 17-year-old was only playing basketball with his friend. Rather than issue a ticket, Mr. Johnson recalled, the officer asked if he could join the game. He shot some hoops with the teenagers, and others came out of their homes.
No one noticed that Mr. White’s dashboard camera was running the whole time.
The video — posted online by the Police Department afterward and watched by millions of viewers — was a moment of hope in an age where recordings of police brutality were the ones going viral. Mr. White became a celebrity in Gainesville, Fla., and was nicknamed “Basketball Cop.” Sports stars came to play pickup games with the Gainesville teens. Mr. White founded a nonprofit to ease relations between the police and Black youths and was invited on NBC’s “Nightly News” and ESPN to promote it.
“He didn’t look at us like we were criminals,” Mr. Johnson, now 22, said.
But Chanae Jackson, a real estate agent who was born in Gainesville, had a different understanding of policing in the city. Her son had a troubling encounter with law enforcement in 2018, and she became a vocal critic of the department. This May, someone sent her another video of Mr. White: A cellphone recording of him slamming a Black teenager into the hood of his patrol car.
After the killing of George Floyd, Ms. Jackson decided she would release the video.
And with just a click on Facebook, she set off an uproar that stripped away not only Mr. White’s image as the face of what good neighborhood policing should be but also the assumption — embraced by liberal-minded reformers in Gainesville and across the country — that fixing racial bias could be as simple as retraining officers and focusing on “community policing.”
“The culture of police departments creates an environment where there are no real consequences for these officers,” Ms. Jackson wrote in her post under the clip of Mr. White’s encounter with the teenager, who was pulled over for running a stop sign on his bicycle.
Gainesville, a largely white and liberal college town, likes to think of itself as different from its neighbors in the Deep South, both in its politics and its policing.
This summer, it responded to calls for defunding the police with a proposal to eliminate city money for stationing police officers in schools. Shortly afterward, officials removed a Confederate general’s name from an elementary school and vowed to rename it. In 2015, the police chief had invited the Justice Department to retrain its entire force.
Yet Black residents like Ms. Jackson argued that law enforcement in Gainesville remained plagued by the racist legacies of a time when its police officers enforced Jim Crow laws.
“Peel back the layers, and Gainesville is not progressive at all,” she said.
Since the killing of Mr. Floyd on May 25, a similar scrutiny of the police has been underway nationwide. And what’s at play is the fundamental question of how the police are perceived. Or, as the two videos of Mr. White illustrate: Do you think a cop is more likely to play ball, or throw you on the hood of a car?
In Gainesville, Mr. White remains in the police department. He declined interview requests for this article and provided a copy of a 2015 internal investigation which cleared him of wrongdoing.
Mr. Johnson, the teenager Mr. White approached in the basketball video, fondly recalled the games he played with the officer and the group of teens Mr. White called “the crew.” Mr. Johnson remembered going with Mr. White to see the Orlando Magic for the first time and how Mr. White stayed in touch and helped him move out of his family home when he got older.
But Mr. Johnson hadn’t seen the other video, the one of the arrest, and asked to watch it on his phone.
When a Times reporter called him back later that day, his voice had changed. He said his perceptions were different now.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a video of every policeman in the world like that,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s what they’re taught.”
A celebrity cop
At age 17, Mr. Johnson said he couldn’t help but notice his interactions with the Gainesville Police Department kept becoming more frequent. They were often harassing, he said, and the stops always came after he had finished playing basketball and his friends walked one another home.
This time the police car pulled up before the teenager had even finished his game. But when Mr. White stepped out in 2016, he had a smile on his face.
“Can you believe that someone called complaining that kids are playing basketball in the street?” Mr. White asks in the video recorded on his dashboard camera. “But I ain’t got no problems with it.”
The boy tosses the officer the ball and the two start to play.
Mr. White came to the Police Department in 2008, a transplant from South Florida. Though white, he has said that he came to identify with some of the struggles of many Black youth in the city. He grew up with a single mother who died of drug addiction at a young age. There was never a male role model in his household.
But there was a big difference when it came to the police. In a podcast interview last year, Mr. White said that as a child he remembered thinking the police “were like superheroes.” He didn’t get that reception from children when he arrived in Gainesville.
“I noticed right away that the kids were scared of us,” he said.
That was because relations between law enforcement and African-Americans in Gainesville had long been uneasy, and would soon be more strained. Even before the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner made national news, the city was dealing with a string of brutal incidents involving the police and sheriff’s officers in the city.
In 2009, two unarmed Black men were shot by officers during separate altercations; one died, and the other, who was mentally ill, survived only after his colon was removed. The next year, an officer unleashed an attack dog that mauled Bryce Bates, a 10-year-old boy, in responding to what turned out to be a false report of a burglary. In 2012, a 29-year-old Black man named Nehemiah Dillard died of a heart attack after being hit twice with Tasers during an arrest.
“The chief saw a trend he didn’t like,” said Jorge Campos, the chief inspector of the Police Department. The police chief ordered the department to be retrained — from a traditional policing model that focused mainly on crime fighting, to one in which Mr. Campos said policing would be done “in conjunction with the community,” which had long been the department’s goal.
The city requested help from Justice Department officials, who assigned teams to meet officers in separate sessions on racial profiling, the use of force and when to report biased tactics.
Lorie Fridell, a criminologist who set up the training, said the venue allowed officers to admit prejudice such as “when I see young Black males, my response is ‘danger and crime,’” and to try to overcome their unconscious biases before returning to work.
But the turnaround effort needed a face. Mr. White’s basketball video, which went viral months after the training, made him the obvious choice. The officer was becoming popular on Facebook, where he often posted pictures of himself surrounded by smiling Black children who posed with him on his beat.
Mr. White did a circuit of cable-news interviews, saying the police had been misunderstood in videos of police brutality that only showed law enforcement at its worst. Gainesville offered a counterexample, he insisted.
When a construction company asked to help, Mr. White had a cement court built behind the home of one of the teenagers. He founded a nonprofit, Basketball Cop Foundation, to distribute basketballs to police departments around the country with the motto “hoops, not crime.”
“It’s no secret that there is a damaged relationship between our country’s law enforcement and the youth in the communities we serve,” he wrote in the foundation’s mission statement. “I also believe that kids do not prefer to feel this way, but society, with the help of social media and the news has influenced them.”
Mr. Johnson described Mr. White as a gentle, almost fatherly presence. The officer helped the teenager find a job after high school. Mr. White came with other officers, dressed in Santa Claus hats, to distribute gifts in the neighborhood at Christmas and hosted birthday parties for children whose parents couldn’t afford them.
There was even a surprise visit from Shaquille O’Neal, whom Mr. White brought in 2016 to the same street where the video was filmed.
Mr. O’Neal ordered up a shooting contest for the teenagers, offering $100 for each successful free throw. The visit was featured on “Good Morning America.”
But Mr. Johnson said things changed when Mr. White and the television cameras were gone. He was still being followed by the police, who would ask to search his shoes for marijuana and sometimes ask if he had been selling drugs.
“I was in high school, my friends were in the eighth or ninth grade,” he said.
It turned out even Mr. O’Neal had run into problems the day he visited Gainesville. The N.B.A. star was pulled over by state troopers and questioned before he arrived to meet the teens, Mr. White later said.
‘They’ve messed with the wrong child’
Chanae Jackson had just received the call she said she had feared since moving back to Gainesville, where she grew up. Her 18-year-old son, Keyon Young, was on the other line, and officers from the sheriff’s department had pulled his car over for allegedly speeding and told him to get out.
It was 2018, and Ms. Jackson was getting her start as a real estate agent in the city after raising her son in Atlanta. She returned home in 2016 to take care of her father, who was ill. But Gainesville wasn’t Atlanta, she told her son, especially when it came to the police. During her pregnancy, officers there once slammed her on the hood of a car during a traffic stop, she said.
She told her son to keep his hands visible and stay in the car. She would call 911, hoping the dispatcher there would ask the officers not to escalate the situation.
Dash cam footage released by the sheriff’s department showed what happened next. Two white officers rush toward Mr. Young’s Volvo. One pulls open the door and shouts, “Exit the vehicle or you’re going to jail.” Both officers then lunge into the car. There’s a brief struggle and one officer steps back to point his weapon at Mr. Young’s head.
“I thought they were going to kill him,” Ms. Jackson said.
Ms. Jackson jumped into her car and sped down the streets near her home, searching for the traffic stop. She found her son in handcuffs when she arrived.
She pulled out her phone and began to broadcast her son’s arrest on Facebook to hundreds of friends and family.
“Y’all know me, y’all know I don’t ever go live — anything I have to say, I say within the confines of my own home,” she said, her anger rising. But this time was different, she said. “They’ve messed with the wrong child.”
As her son was arrested, Ms. Jackson referred to studies on policing by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. She cited arrest statistics of Black people in Gainesville. Ms. Jackson kept the camera rolling, through a first video, a second and a third hours later as her son drove her home after his release.
“I’ve told Keyon, as a Black man in America you have two strikes against you, no matter how well you speak, no matter how well you do,” she said in the video.
A judge later cleared Mr. Young of the speeding charge. But the experience caught the attention of the small but growing activist community in the city. Just as the video of the policeman playing basketball made Mr. White the spokesman of the law enforcement reform effort, the video of the angered mother made Ms. Jackson a star critic of the police in Gainesville.
It had been two years since the Police Department had undergone retraining. But a study by the University of Florida found racial disparities persisted. While African-Americans accounted for only a fifth of the population, they were four times as likely to be arrested in Gainesville than whites. Black teens were seven times as likely to be arrested than white teens.
Less than a year after the Department of Justice training, officers shot and killed Robert Dentmond, a 16-year-old Black high school student who had called 911 saying he was armed and suicidal. Officers fired 35 times after he refused to put down what was found later to be a plastic weapon. A grand jury found the killing justified.
Ms. Jackson argued that the reforms were only a facade and that law enforcement needed to be taken on more directly.
When she saw Black men pulled over as she drove through Gainesville, Ms. Jackson took to stopping and questioning the officers in live Facebook videos. She broadcast to her followers from outside the Alachua County jail and referred to Sadie Darnell, the sheriff, as #ShadySadie in her posts. She was more confrontational than other activists, but said she didn’t mind being a lightning rod.
“I take full ownership of being an angry Black woman,” she said. “Change doesn’t happen in times of comfort.”
Ms. Jackson had always been skeptical of Mr. White’s fame and the media attention that his Basketball Cop Foundation received.
In mid-May, a group of officers in the Police Department who shared her concerns about racism on the force got in touch with her. They sent her a 2014 video in which Mr. White could be seen violently throwing a young Black man onto the hood of his vehicle after he rode a bicycle through a stop sign.
“Black children, in their minds, are compliant,” she said, describing the attitude of the Police Department. That was why Mr. White was popular with the children he knew. “But Black teenagers are seen as grown people — the police see them as Black men, and the world is supposed to be scared of them.”
On May 25, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. The wave of protests against police brutality reached Gainesville days later.
Before a rally, the police chief, Tony Jones, condemned the Minnesota officers. He said Gainesville wasn’t Minneapolis. Its officers had a different philosophy. They had simply been taught differently, retrained in community policing.
He echoed so many political leaders who have argued this year that more training, getting to know residents and working with them to solve neighborhood problems, and hiring officers who look like the people they serve is the best way to end police brutality.
“What I saw in that video erodes the trust of police,” the chief said.
Ms. Jackson thought of the video of Mr. White sitting on her hard drive.
One last viral moment
Mr. White had also become vocal on social media about the killing of Mr. Floyd. In his view, it left a black eye on officers everywhere, and was pushing the country back toward the police brutality narrative that he’d spent years countering.
“I’m a cop. Emotions….” he wrote on Facebook on May 26 under a video still of the arrest. “I am DISGUSTED by the actions of this officer. I am ANGRY at the officers on the scene who didn’t stop him.”
Mr. White’s Facebook page for his Basketball Cop Foundation had given the officer a platform well beyond Gainesville. About 140,000 people nationwide followed his posts on the good deeds of the police, like a local television segment Mr. White posted of one officer who gave a laptop to someone after hers was stolen.
But Mr. Floyd’s death marked a turning point. Some of Mr. White’s followers asked him whether the police were deliberately targeting Black people. Mr. White argued that there was no larger problem, saying his own white family was treated the same as Black families by the police.
“I’m a cop and my teenaged son is white. I still had ‘the talk’ with him, too,” he wrote, referring to how to behave during a police stop. “It’s because I know it’s your actions that will get you shot, not your race.”
Mr. White’s followers began to push him on the unrest and looting in Minneapolis, which some said was justified, one quoting a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. White argued that businesses shouldn’t be harmed.
As the criticism mounted, Mr. White dug in. He posted an article from the far-right website Breitbart News decrying “those smearing every police officer,” and another item about recent crime in Chicago, saying there was too little focus on “Black-on-Black” crime.
“What about the thousands of black babies aborted each year?” asked one commenter in the thread. “Why is it different when a white person is killed similarly by the police?”
Mr. White clicked “like.”
As the disputes between Mr. White and his followers reached a peak, Ms. Jackson returned to the video that was sent to her.
She had been trying to gather more information before releasing it. Shot on a cellphone, the video showed an encounter from 2014. Semajiah Ferguson, then 16 years old, stands next to Mr. White, looking at the ground as the lights flash on the patrol car at nighttime.
“He bothering us Black folks for no reason,” says Mr. Ferguson’s cousin, who was recording the video. “Can you tell us what we did, sir?”
In an interview, Mr. Ferguson recalled he had been riding his bicycle home to his parents’ house after picking up a two-liter bottle of Tropical Punch when he was stopped.
Mr. White later told his superiors the teenager had committed two minor traffic violations — running a stop sign and having improper lighting for the bike — but on the video, the officer mentions neither. Instead, he tells the teenager to sit on the ground. Mr. Ferguson says he doesn’t want to.
Mr. White suddenly grabs the young man, and pins his knees against the hood. The boy goes limp. The officer then throws Mr. Ferguson’s upper body against the hood of the vehicle twice, and a loud thud can be heard.
“Down! Down! Lay down on the car!” Mr. White shouts.
Watching it again, Ms. Jackson decided on June 14 that other people should see this video of Mr. White, too.
As the video circulated on Facebook, she began to see in the comments that this kind of behavior from the police in Gainesville was a surprise to some residents. “Before, some people said we didn’t even need protests in Gainesville because there was no police brutality,” she said.
The video generated outrage among the city’s leaders. Gail Johnson, a city commissioner, said it showed the kind of overzealous policing over minor infractions that her Black constituents had long complained was commonplace.
“It is grounded in racism,” she said. “I don’t even know how to approach it.”
Residents and activists, brought to the streets after the Minneapolis killing, now began to rally against Mr. White in their demonstrations as marches continued around Gainesville. If the police had the video of the arrest, many asked, how was it that the officer had been allowed to work with young children for so many years?
The department released a lengthy statement saying that it had looked into the arrest years before and it didn’t violate any departmental policy. It also said prosecutors hadn’t found any evidence of wrongdoing by the officer even though authorities had found no crime with which to charge the teenager he had thrown.
“The search was captured on video and appeared proper,” said a police report on the incident.
Soon after the department’s statement, which once more praised its community policing model, Ms. Jackson found herself under attack by law enforcement officers for releasing the video.
Becki Holcomb, a white officer who dated Mr. White and worked on the force when it underwent retraining, went after Ms. Jackson on the official Facebook page of the Gainesville Police Department.
“Chanae Jackson, you are a horrible person and you should be ashamed of yourself,” the officer wrote under the department’s statement on Mr. Ferguson’s arrest. “You are a liar, a race baiter and one of the most uneducated, hateful women I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Not long after, Ashley Mauger, a 911 dispatcher in the sheriff’s office, threatened to run background checks on those who were criticizing Mr. White on Facebook. She then turned her attention to Ms. Jackson, calling her a “hothead” and criticizing her grammar.
“I can’t fathom the response you will get the next time you dial 911 and possibly get me on the phone with a loved one or yourself in a life-or-death emergency,” she wrote, adding, “you should all be ashamed of yourselves.”
Ms. Mauger was briefly suspended for her comments; Ms. Holcomb is under investigation, the police said.
Ms. Jackson said that while the attacks by the officers angered her, she was not surprised.
If anything, Ms. Jackson said she felt some vindication. After years of hearing white neighbors praise Gainesville’s policing, the video and the reactions showed a reality that contradicted that of the “Basketball Cop.”
“I said, ‘There they go, proving my point again,’” she said of the fallout.
Ms. Jackson continues her efforts to hold the police accountable in her online videos. Driving for errands in the nearby city of Ocala in early July, she pulled over when she saw more than a dozen police cars surrounding a group of teenagers of color, and started filming.
When the traffic stop finished, she yelled out to the young men to pull over a second time — she wanted to instruct them on how to file a complaint if they felt the stop was unwarranted.
“I’m gonna record for y’all to see every time this happens, every time,” she says to her online audience in the video.
Stella Cooper contributed reporting.