If I weren’t black, would 19 cops be at my door?

Af­ter a white neigh­bor’s call, Fay Wells was or­dered out of her own home at gun­point

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­[email protected]­post.com Fay Wells is vice pres­i­dent of strat­egy at a com­pany in Cal­i­for­nia.

On Sept .6, I locked my­self out of my apart­ment in Santa Monica, Calif. I was in a rush to get to my weekly soc­cer game, so I de­cided togo enjoy the game and deal with the lock af­ter­ward.

A few hours and a visit from a lock­smith later, I was in­side my apart­ment and slip­ping off my shoes when I heard a man’s voice and what sounded like a small dog whim­per­ing out­side, near my front win­dow. I imag­ined a loi­terer and opened the door to move him along. I was sur­prised to see a large dog half­way up the stair­case to my door. I stepped back in­side, closed the door and locked it.

I heard bark­ing. I ap­proached my front win­dow and loudly asked what was go­ing on. Peer­ing through my blinds, I saw a gun. A man stood at the bot­tom of the stairs, point­ing it at me. I stepped back and heard: “Come out­side with your hands up.” I thought: This man has a gun and will kill me if I don’t

come out­side. At the same time, I

thought: I’ve heard this line from po­lice in movies. Al­though he didn’t iden­tify him­self, per­haps he’s an of­fi­cer.

I left my apart­ment in my socks, shorts and a light jacket, my hands in the air. “What’s go­ing on?” I asked again. Two po­lice of­fi­cers had guns trained on me. They shouted: “Who’s in there with you? How many of you are there?”

I said it was only me and, hands still raised, slowly de­scended the stairs, fo­cused on one of­fi­cer’s eyes and on his pis­tol. I had never looked down the bar­rel of a gun or at the face of a man with a loaded weapon pointed at me. In his eyes, I saw fear and anger. I had no idea what was hap­pen­ing, but I saw how it would end: I would be dead in the stair­well out­side my apart­ment, be­cause some­thing about me — a 5foot-7, 125-pound black woman — fright­ened this man with a gun. I sat down, try­ing to look even less threat­en­ing, try­ing to de-es­ca­late. I again asked what was go­ing on. I con­firmed there were no pets or peo­ple in­side.

I told the of­fi­cers I didn’t want them in my apart­ment. I said they had no right to be there. They en­tered any­way. One pulled me, hands be­hind my back, out to the street. The neigh­bors were watch­ing. Only then did I no­tice the ocean of of­fi­cers. I counted 16. They still hadn’t told me why they’d come.

Later, I learned that the Santa Monica Po­lice Depart­ment had dis­patched 19 of­fi­cers af­ter one of my neigh­bors re­ported a bur­glary at my apart­ment. It didn’t mat­ter that I told the cops I’d lived there for seven months, told them about the lock­smith, of­fered to show a re­ceipt for his ser­vices and my ID. It didn’ t mat­ter that I went to Duke, that I have an MBA from Dart­mouth, that I’m a vice pres­i­dent of strat­egy at a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion. It didn’t mat­ter that I’ve never had so much as a speed­ing ticket. It didn’ t mat­ter that I calm ly, con­tin­u­ally asked them what was hap­pen­ing. It also didn’t mat­ter that I didn’t match the de­scrip­tion of the per­son they were look­ing for — my neigh­bor de­scribed me as His­panic when he called 911. What mat­tered was that I was a woman of color try­ing to get into her apart­ment — in an al­most en­tirely white apart­ment com­plex in a mostly white city — and a white man who lived in an­other build­ing called the cops be­cause he’d never seen me be­fore.

Af­ter the of­fi­cers and dog ex­ited my “cleared” apart­ment, I was al­lowed back in­side to speak with some of them. They asked me why I hadn’t come out­side shout­ing, “I live here.” I told them it didn’ t make sense to walk out of my own apart­ment pro­claim­ing my res­i­dence when I didn’t even know what was go­ing on. I also re­minded them that they had guns pointed at me. Shout­ing at any­one with a gun doesn’t seem like a wise de­ci­sion.

I had so many ques­tions. Why hadn’t they an­nounced them­selves? Why had they pointed guns at me? Why had they re­fused to an­swer when I asked re­peat­edly what was go­ing on? Was it pro­to­col to send more than a dozen cops to a sus­pected bur­glary? Why hadn’t any­one asked for my ID or ac­cepted it, es­pe­cially af­ter I’d of­fered it? If I hadn’t heard the dog, would I have opened the door to a gun in my face? “Maybe,” they an­swered.

I de­manded all of their names and was given few. Some of­fi­cers sim­ply ig­nored me when I asked, boldly turn­ing and walk­ing away. Af­ter­ward, I saw them talk­ing to neigh­bors, but they ig­nored me when I ap­proached them again. A sergeant as­sured me that he’d per­son­ally pro­vide me with all names and badge num­bers.

I in­tro­duced my­self to the re­port­ing neigh­bor and asked if he was aware of the grav­ity of his ac­tions — the ocean of armed of­fi­cers, my life in dan­ger. He stut­tered about never hav­ing seen me, be­fore snip­pily ask­ing if I knew my next-door neigh­bor. Af­ter I con­firmed that I did and ques­tioned him fur­ther, he an­grily re­sponded, “I’m an at­tor­ney, so you can go f--your­self,” and walked away.

I spoke with two of the of­fi­cers a lit­tle while longer, try­ing to wrap my mind around the mag­ni­tude and na­ture of their re­sponse. Wouldn’t I want the same re­sponse if I’d been the one who called the cops? they won­dered. “Ab­so­lutely not,” I replied. I re­counted my terror and told them how I imag­ined it all end­ing, par­tic­u­larly in light of the re­cent in­ter­ac­tions­be­tween po­lice and peo­ple of color. One of­fi­cer ad­mit­ted that it was com­pli­cated but added that peo­ple some­times kill cops for no rea­son. I was stunned and mo­men­tar­ily speech­less at this strange jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Igot no clear an­swers from the po­lice that night and am still strug­gling to get them, de­spite mul­ti­ple vis­its, calls and e-mails to the Santa Monica Po­lice Depart­ment re­quest­ing the names of the of­fi­cers, their badge num­bers, the au­dio from my neigh­bor’s call to 911 and the po­lice re­port. The sergeant didn’t e-mail me the of­fi­cers’ names as he promised. I was told that the au­dio of the call re­quires a sub­poena and that the small army of re­spond- ers, guns drawn, hadn’t mer­ited an of­fi­cial re­port. I even­tu­ally re­ceived a list from the SMPD of 17 of­fi­cers who came to my apart­ment that night, but the list does not in­clude the names of two of­fi­cers who handed me their busi­ness cards on the scene. I’ ve filed an of­fi­cial com­plaint with in­ter­nal af­fairs. (The depart­ment re­leased some of this in­for­ma­tion to The Wash­ing­ton Post af­ter an ed­i­tor’s in­quiry.)

To many, the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the po­lice is pri­mar­ily ab­stract or painted as oc­ca­sional. Each high-pro­file in­ci­dent of ag­gres­sive po­lice in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple of color — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Fred­die Gray — can be writ­ten off as an out­lier.

What hap­pened to them did not hap­pen to me. But it eas­ily could have; the SMPD sent 19 armed po­lice of­fi­cers to my apart­ment who re­fused to an­swer my ques­tions while vi­o­lat­ing my rights, pri­vacy and sense of well-be­ing. A wrong move, and I could have been shot. My com­plaint is not the first against the depart­ment this year. This spring, the lo­cal branch of the NAACP and other con­cerned res­i­dents met with SMPD to dis­cuss sev­eral in­ci­dents of ag­gres­sive polic­ing against peo­ple of color. The NAACP asked SMPD for de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion on all traf­fic, pub­lic trans­porta­tion and pedes­trian stops, and the depart­ment promised to release a re­port of de­tailed ar­rest data next year.

The trauma of that night lingers. I can’t un-see the guns, the dog, the of­fi­cers forc­ing their way into my apart­ment, the small army wait­ing for me out­side. Al­most daily, I deal with sleep­less­ness, con­fu­sion, anger and fear. I’m fright­ened when I see large dogs now. I have night­mares of be­ing beaten by white men as they call me the n-word. Ev­ery week, I see my neigh­bor who called 911. He averts his eyes.

I’m heart­bro­ken that his care­less as­sess­ment of me, based on skin color, could en­dan­ger my life. I’m heart­bro­ken by the sense of terror I got from peo­ple whose job is sup­pos­edly to pro­tect me. I’m heart­bro­ken by a sys­tem that evades ac­count­abil­ity and jus­ti­fies dan­ger­ous be­hav­ior. I’m heart­bro­ken that the place I called home no longer feels safe. I’m heart­bro­ken that no mat­ter how many times a story like this is told, it will hap­pen again.

Not long ago, I was walk­ing with a friend to a crowded restau­rant when I spot­ted two cops in line and froze. I tried to fig­ure out how to get around them with­out hav­ing to walk past them. I no longer wanted to eat there, but I didn’t want to ruin my friend’s evening. As we stood in line, 10 or so peo­ple back, my eyes stayed on them. I’ve al­ways gone out of my way to avoid gen­er­al­iza­tions and group­ing of peo­ple en masse. I imag­ined that per­haps th­ese two cops were good peo­ple, but I couldn’t stop think­ing about what the Santa Monica po­lice had done tome. I found alum pin my throat as I tried to sep­a­rate them from the sys­tem that had ter­ri­fied me. I re­al­ized that if I needed help, I didn’t think I could ask them for it.

I’m heart­bro­ken that no mat­ter how many times a story like this is told, it will hap­pen again.

Ed­i­tor’s note: The Santa Monica Po­lice Depart­ment told The Wash­ing­ton Post that 16 of­fi­cers were on the scene but later pro­vided a list of 17 names. That list does not match the list of 17 names that was even­tu­ally pro­vided to the writer; the to­tal num­ber of names pro­vided by the SMPD is 19. The depart­ment also said that it was pro­to­col for this type of call to war­rant “a very sub­stan­tial po­lice re­sponse,” and that any fail­ure of of­fi­cers to pro­vide their names and badge num­bers “would be in­con­sis­tent with the Depart­ment’s pro­to­cols and expectations.” There is an open in­ter­nal af­fairs in­quiry into the writer’s al­le­ga­tions of racially mo­ti­vated mis­con­duct. Af­ter this es­say ran on­line, Po­lice Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks re­leased an ad­di­tional state­ment. “The 9­1­1 caller was not wrong for re­port­ing what he be­lieved was an in­progress res­i­den­tial bur­glary,” she wrote. “Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does.”

KYLE MONK FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Fay Wells says she has re­ceived few an­swers from Santa Monica, Calif., po­lice about their ac­tions.

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