When 'Aggression' is Police Protocol

Imagine you’re a woman in your late twenties with a job at a multinational software company. You play soccer as a hobby and come home after a game one night to find you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment. It’s around 11:15 by the time the locksmith has let you in, and you’re taking off your shoes when you hear a voice and a barking dog near your front porch. You go to the window, pull back the blinds, and see a man pointing a gun at you. You step back from the window and hear the man say, “Come outside with your hands up!” What do you do next?

Correctly assuming it was the police who ordered her outside, Fay Wells of Santa Monica, California, obeyed. Writing in the Washington Post about the September 6 incident, Wells describes how officers commanded her down from her porch at gunpoint without answering her repeatedly asked question: “What’s going on?” Only after they searched her apartment did officers explain why they were there. But none of them could give Wells, who is African American, a satisfactory explanation as to why there were nineteen of them, and they assured her it had nothing to do with race. “The fact is,” she later told NPR’s Ari Shapiro “the first time that they interacted with me, they had guns drawn, which just felt incredibly aggressive and not like they were trying to assess the situation.”

Shortly after Wells's piece appeared in the Post, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released a statement on the incident, affirming the claims Wells made—yes, the department sent nineteen police officers and a K-9  to investigate a 9-1-1 caller’s claim that a Latino man and two girls, “possibly Hispanic” were attempting a break-in “using tools”—and defending that protocol. “In smaller communities, like Santa Monica,” Seabrooks explained “a response of this type is not uncommon.”

Unfortunately, in incidents involving women of color, such responses by law enforcement seem to have become common in recent months, with police acting aggressively in non-criminal, non-confrontational encounters and escalating them into violent ones. 

Last July, twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland, who after refusing to put out her cigarette in the course of a Texas traffic stop was pulled from her car, threatened with a Taser ("I'm going to light you up," Trooper Brian Encina was recorded on dashboard-camera telling her), arrested without being told why, and pushed face-first into the grass. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after the stop; her death, officially ruled a suicide, is currently being considered by a grand jury. The month before that, McKinney, Texas, officer Eric Casebolt, responding to reports of an unruly pool party, was videotaped grabbing fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton by the hair, throwing her to the ground, sticking his knee into her back, and shoving her into the grass, yelling “on your face!” —then pulling his gun on other teens. And in October, video captured Richland County, South Carolina, deputy Ben Fields flipping a slumped high school student out of her desk, wrestling her to the ground, then dragging her across the floor of the classroom.

As a white woman it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an interaction with police officers like these, or the one that Fay Wells describes. I’m more likely to be assumed as a victim of a burglary than a burglar. It’s hard to believe that an officer who hadn’t identified himself would continue to point a gun at me after I’d put my hands up and obediently followed his order. In fact, if I'm honest, I reflexively hesitate to attribute aggressive response and escalation by police offices to race at all—because it's easy for me to deny. And I’m not alone. A survey by McClatchy-Marist from December 2014 showed 50 percent of whites have “a great deal of confidence in the police to gain the trust of those they serve” compared with only 22 percent of African Americans.

Having been on the receiving end of an aggressive and unnecessarily escalated response has permanently changed how Fay Wells feels about the criminal justice system despite assurances from the Santa Monica police that they only intended to keep her safe.

The Santa Monica police department is currently reviewing what happened at Wells's home. Chief Seabrook says the incident is “reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink.” Others might see it as indicative of a different pattern, in which disproportionate response by police—operating with wide discretion and little accountability—is actually putting certain women at much greater risk.

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