‘I Feared for My Life’: The Use of Unmarked Vans in Arrests Is More Common Than You Think

Police have deployed a variety of violent tactics against protestors since May. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)



By Keya Vakil

August 28, 2020

“This is the kind of thing that happens over and over and over and I’m glad attention is finally being paid to it, but this is not new. This is the kind of thing that’s been happening for years.”

As protesters took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a fourth straight night on Wednesday to demand justice for Jacob Blake, a group of volunteers found themselves detained by officers in unmarked vehicles in a jarring scene that resembled an abduction. 

Jennifer Scheurle, a board member for Riot Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides people with free meals, told COURIER that law enforcement officers detained eight of her volunteers on Wednesday.

A video of the encounter shows vehicles with no license plates pulling up to and blocking a silver van. A group of officers—some of whom are in plainclothes—then jump out of the unmarked vehicles and surround the van. One aims his gun at the driver and another smashes the passenger’s side window, dragging a woman out of the car. 

Wednesday’s events avoided the tragic outcome of Sunday—when Blake, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha Police—and Tuesday, when a 17-year-old white militia member shot and killed two protesters. But the detainment tactic employed by law enforcement has caused terror and sparked controversy. 

Scheurle, who was audibly shaken by the events, said she didn’t know why her friends were taken into custody or which agency conducted the arrest. 

“We don’t know who actually arrested them. I have no idea. I’ve been calling a million places since yesterday. I’m still not sure,” Scheurle said in a phone interview on Thursday. “We’re kind of getting the runaround right now in Kenosha from the police there.” 

She said two of the eight were released on Wednesday evening and one bailed themselves out on Thursday. As of late Friday, she reported that all had been freed and six were charged, though she did not specify the charges.

The Kenosha Police Department and the US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

Scheurle said she had no idea why her volunteers were arrested. “Riot is a mutual-aid organization feeding activists and homeless people,” Scheurle said. “We’re focused on providing warm meals to anyone who wants it for free.”

“It’s common practice,” experts say about the use of unmarked vans.

Wednesday’s incident isn’t an isolated one. The practice was used by federal officers in Portland and police officers in New York City last month, raising concerns about violations of Americans’ civil liberties and constitutional rights. 


Despite the shocking nature of these scenes, this tactic is not uncommon. These plainclothes officers, often referred to as “jump out boys,” frequently use this approach in Black and brown communities. 

“Plainclothes officers jumping out of unmarked vehicles without warning to arrest people is something that has been reported in Black and brown neighborhoods in many cities around the country,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “It’s a terrifying vehicle for racial profiling in many circumstances.” 

Eliza Orlins serves as a public defender in Manhattan and is currently running for Manhattan District Attorney. She told COURIER that she has represented countless clients who’ve been arrested this way. 

“This is the kind of thing that happens over and over and over and I’m glad attention is finally being paid to it,” Orlins said. “But this is not new. This is the kind of thing that’s been happening for years, for decades. It’s common practice.”

After coming under fire last month, the NYPD defended the practice as standard procedure for its Warrant Squad, which uses unmarked vehicles to detain people of interest in the city. 

“Whether or not the arrest itself is legal doesn’t change the fact that what is happening shouldn’t happen,” she said. “The violent arrests that are terrifying brutalized communities that are consistently used as pretext to basically kidnap Black and brown children off the street and disappear them into precincts for unrelated interrogations—that most of the time don’t even lead to a case.”

Many times, warrant squads don’t even need an arrest warrant signed by a judge to use the tactic. They only need an “Investigation card” or “I-card” warrant, which is issued internally within the NYPD. Using these I-Cards, warrant squads can detain anyone that has been deemed a person of interest by their own department. This creates an avenue for officers to skirt the rules and arrest people without a judge signing off on a real arrest warrant, which requires proof of probable cause.

“It’s supposed to be illegal for them to seize people on the basis of these I-Cards, but they do it anyhow,” Orlins said. “These warrant squads roam around and New York in plain clothes, in unmarked vans, and then they jump out and basically kidnap people and it’s traumatizing. It’s horrific.”

“I feared for my life.”

Orlins isn’t the only one to liken the tactic to a kidnapping.

“If somebody jumps out of an unmarked vehicle and grabs you and you are not able to identify them as a law enforcement officer, that is literally the experience of being kidnapped,” Takei said.

Scheurle used the term herself to describe what happened to her friends and said this method of arrests should be made illegal. 

“No one should go through this thing that we did yesterday,” she said. “Our friends were snatched from the street and we watched it on a video feed and we didn’t know where they were or who even got them. Who knows who these people were. We couldn’t find them for almost 10 hours.”

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The tactic can not only cause fear and trauma, but might also lead to more violence, according to Orlins.

“If someone goes to grab you and it is a person who is not in uniform, doesn’t have a visible badge, and doesn’t identify themselves as being law enforcement, the only natural human reaction to that is to flee or fight back,” she said. “And what that generally leads to—and what I’ve seen time and time again—is clients of mine getting just brutalized, getting beaten, getting slammed into the ground and the sidewalk, getting their heads bashed in because they were ‘resisting arrest’ even though they had no idea that arrest was being effectuated to begin with.”

That instinct to run is exactly what 29-year-old Mark Pettibone felt in July when he was surrounded by mysterious men dressed in camouflage in Portland while walking home from a peaceful protest.

“Suddenly, an unmarked, dark-colored minivan pulled up in front of me, and four or five people clad in military fatigues jumped out,” Pettibone wrote in an op-ed for BuzzFeed News. “I had no idea who they were, but I’d been warned earlier that unmarked vans had been snatching protesters who strayed from the larger group near the Hatfield Courthouse. So I did what most people would do. I ran.” 

The men gave chase and surrounded him until he surrendered. They detained him and threw him into a van without giving him a reason. “I feared for my life,” Pettibone wrote. He wasn’t sure whether he was being arrested or “abducted” by far-right extremists, who had been a steady presence at Portland protests. 

Pettibone said he was detained and searched and placed in a holding cell, and eventually released after he refused to waive his Miranda rights and answer questions. He received no record or documentation of his arrest and no knowledge of who arrested him or why. It was only later that found out the men who arrested him were federal agents working with the Department of Homeland Security.

Being taken away by unmarked vans can cause lingering trauma.

Pettibone’s detainment has had a lasting effect on his psyche. 

“Since being abducted, I’ve only attended two protests. A lingering paranoia and fear have made me hesitant to exercise my rights to the fullest. I think that was part of the point of ‘the arrest,’” he wrote. 

Pettibone is now one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on Wednesday, which alleges that agents deployed by President Donald Trump used excessive force and illegal detentions to rob protesters of their freedom of speech and assembly.

“I still haven’t fully come to terms with what it means that I was kidnapped by my government,” Pettibone said in a statement. “People need to know what happened to me and the government needs to be held accountable so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to someone else.”

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Beyond the immediate terror associated with being detained this way, Orlins also worries about the long-term impact of the tactic on those who find themselves arrested this way.

“I think being grabbed that way can cause lifelong trauma and harm, even if someone does identify as law enforcement, which often times as we know, they do not,” Orlins said.

Scheurle is still in the midst of her experience, but it’s already clear it’s one that will stick with her. She said that she “can’t ever unsee” what’s happened over the past 48 hours and that any sense of normalcy has been “brutally forced out” of her. 

“We didn’t know where our friends were,” Scheurle said. “To watch your friends get snatched from the street and then you don’t know where they were taken is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced and no one should have to.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on August 28, 2020, to reflect the release of Riot Kitchen’s staff.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

CATEGORIES: Criminal Justice


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