Since the Henry Louis Gates story hit the news last week, I’ve thought about countless encounters my friends and I have had with the police. But an experience I had two years ago stands out.
My wife and I were at a staff Christmas dinner. Our children were at home with two baby-sitters, the son of another staffer and my wife’s cousin. While enjoying a spread of Mexican food, I got a call.
“Jay is in your driveway, and the police have him handcuffed!”
“Jay” was a teenager in our neighborhood with whom I had forged a close friendship. At the time, I was the executive director of Harambee Christian Family Center, a community outreach organization the provides afterschool programs and a private school for children and youth in inner-city Pasadena, California.
My wife and I got in our car and rushed home. When we arrived, we discovered that the officers, in assessing the situation, had entered our house and gone through each room to “make sure everything was OK.”
The situation they encountered was this: There had been a gang-related shooting in our neighborhood earlier in the week. Our neighborhood had both African American and Latino gangs, and the shooting was rumored to be black-on-black. Because a retaliation was expected, there was heavier-than-usual police presence. Squad cars roamed the streets in all directions, starting at sundown.
The officers said they observed Jay “running like crazy down the middle of the street.” (We later learned Jay was running to get back to my house, before anyone knew he had left. He had been told by his mother to stay with the two baby-sitters at my house and not leave.) The police were investigating anything suspicious, so they asked him what he was doing. Jay said he was baby-sitting “over there” and pointed to my house, just a few yards away. The officers wondered why, if he was supposedly baby-sitting, he was instead sprinting down the street on a night rumored to be pregnant with gang violence. They detained him, then went to the front door to check Jay’s story.
Jay is African American. When the officers rang the doorbell, the door was answered by the main baby-sitter, a 17-year-old African American male. My wife’s cousin, a 16-year-old African American female, stood nearby within view of the door. The officers asked to speak to the parents, and the baby-sitter said the parents were not there and that he was the baby-sitter. The officers asked if they could come in to the house and check on the children, but the baby-sitter said no, not without a warrant. (The baby-sitter had been schooled by his father about police searches: If there is no warrant, never let them in.)
The officers went back and forth in discussion with the baby-sitter. Finally, one officer pushed aside the baby-sitter and entered the house, stating that he was going to search every room to make sure “everything was OK.”
Meanwhile, Jay was detained by the police in my driveway. Neighbors had begun to gather. That’s when I received my phone call.
The officers were about to drive away when my wife and I arrived. The police explained that they had entered my house to make sure all was well, after having encountered Jay running down the street.
We actually met with the officers and a few higher-ups, about a week or so later. We requested the meeting because we were a bit shaken that the officers came into our home as they did. With flashlights in hand, they had gone through every nook of the house and entered the rooms where my two children lay sleeping. I don’t want any strangers looking in on my children, and I wasn’t happy with the situation.
The officers explained their protocol in such a situation, saying that the house search was to ensure the safety of all, and they had to ask themselves: What if the parents are tied up in a closet somewhere inside?
So here’s the big question: What if we had been tied up in a closet? Was the circumstance enough to warrant the officers’ actions? A night when a black gang is rumored to retaliate for an earlier shooting; a black teen running “like crazy” down the middle of a street in the hot area; same teen says he’s baby-sitting, yet he’s out of the house; the teen at the door says there are no parents at home, and yet won’t allow the officers in the house.
I saw their point. I saw it then, and I see it now.
They made a judgment call, that’s for sure. Would I have made the same judgment call were I in their shoes? Imagine if the parents were really inside, locked in a closet. Or what if these teens were themselves hostages, being directed how to answer by men who had just broken in and were holding the baby-sitters and my children? It’s not far-fetched to imagine such a scenario: Around that same time, a mentally unstable and violent neighbor had hopped my backyard fence and come knocking on my backdoor, asking me to hide him from the “men in blue.”
When they had ensured my children were indeed safe and that the house was “OK,” the officers left the house, released Jay, and continued with their neighborhood patrol.
All of our young people kept it cool that night, Jay included. I’m proud of them for that. My neighbor called me while the officers were still on my property. That was great. And the police officers were doing their job “to the best of their ability,” as they said later. In retrospect, perhaps they should have made some gesture of apology, or at least a simple acknowledgment, that entering our house and searching it was something no one wanted to happen. But they were respectful, even if they seemed a bit arrogant and unsympathetic at the time.
There are bad officers. There are dishonest and compromised officers. There are power-tripping officers. Many are young, with little or no training in the art of community policing. Most officers I know, however, are trying to do their jobs well. Every day they make judgment calls in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations. All are trying to get home safely to their families at night.
There are no easy answers. Racial profiling is humiliating and alienates the very people you need to make a community safe, the residents themselves. Nothing changes that fact. That’s why the officers could have, at the very least, made some such gesture of acknowledgment to me and my wife when we drove up to the scene. On the other side, police officers are often in no-win, thankless situations, so I’m grateful to the men and women who serve with their hearts as well follow their protocols. The more we’re willing and able to absorb both of these realities into our worldviews, the better off we’ll be.