Twenty Years of Covering the Law Has Taught Me This: Think Twice Before Calling the Police

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 14 2014 3:04 PM

Why I Don’t Call the Police

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Debra Harrell. And that’s just the latest.

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But on the late ’90s night when I stopped by to say hello, I saw a side of law enforcement I’d never seen firsthand. I was inside the house, talking with the girls and their mom when we heard sirens come screaming down the street. We looked through the window and then opened the front door. The cops pounded on the door of another home on the block. They went inside and came out with two guys who they clubbed to the ground. When the men were down, faces against the asphalt and hands cuffed, the cops yanked them into a police car and went zooming off into the night.

I don’t know who those men were or what they’d done. I asked the girls and their mother if they were drug dealers, and they shook their heads: They didn’t think so, but they didn’t know. Mostly, they weren’t surprised. Whatever led up to that arrest, to them the use of force felt routine. Like everyone else on the street, they went back inside and shut the door.

For me, the whole thing was mind bending. It all seemed entirely unaccountable. This was before cellphones and the citizen videos that have changed how we see deaths like Garner’s or an arrest of a black passerby like this one. I had no idea what to make of what I’d seen. Were the police protecting people like the family I was visiting from the thugs in the neighborhood? Or were they flexing their muscle because they could? Had they crossed the line into misconduct? Were they a force for good or for ill?

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I still don’t know. But I came away sure of one thing: I couldn’t imagine anything like that happening on any street I’ve lived on. And it’s black people who tend to live in the places where it does happen—and when the police clearly do use excessive force, their victims often have little recourse. And sometimes, people die. That happened again on Monday night, in Los Angeles, to 25-year-old black man Ezell Ford, whose mental illness, his family said, was well known to the police but who the police say got into a struggle during an investigative stop, went for an officer’s gun, and was shot and killed.

Between 2003 and 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4,813 people died “while law enforcement personnel were attempting to arrest or restrain them, or shortly thereafter,” as Gene Demby writes for NPR, and about 60 percent of the deaths are classified as homicides by the police (I don’t know how many of the people killed were black). Demby points out that this is a small number in the context of the 98 million arrests made nationally during the same time period. But it’s still a scary number, especially when, as in Michael Brown’s case so far, police departments seem intent on protecting their own from the consequences.

This is the sharp edge of my explanation for why as a white person, if I have a choice about whether to involve the police in the life of a black person, I will try to choose not to. I’m not saying that I won’t call 911 and pray as hard as I can for the police to come if someone, whatever race, breaks in to my house. But much of the time, our choices are made in a far hazier gray area. To go back to the story of Debra Harrell and her daughter, who wound up respectively, getting arrested and going into foster care: If I saw a 9-year-old black girl alone in the park, and she said her mom was at work, I would not call the police. I would ask that girl if she was OK and try to talk to her mom. Because, once the wheels of the bureaucratic state start to turn, they can grind people up. Maybe the police want to help but don’t have discretion. Maybe “the law is an ass,” as my colleague David Plotz put it on the Gabfest. Whatever the cause, I would rather stay away from bringing its weight to bear on someone else, especially when I know that person is likelier to get an unfair shake.

The girls whom I visited on Cherry Ann Street have grown up, and one of them has an 18-year-old son. He graduated from high school in May, and he’s supposed to start college next week. He is a good kid who has not had an easy life and who is making his way. One day earlier this summer, he says, a friend brought a moped to his house and said he could ride it. The boy I know drove the bike and got stopped by the police because he wasn’t wearing goggles. They ran the moped through the system and discovered it was stolen, and he’s now facing larceny charges. This wouldn’t happen to one of my sons. I just don’t think it would. Just like I don’t think I would ever have my kids taken away from me for letting them go to the park alone.

So what does this have to do with Ferguson? What’s happening there—the tear gas, the tanks—is not what’s happening in black neighborhoods all across America every day. But it’s the same dynamic that black people experience too often, and more often than everyone else: The arm of the government that is meant to protect them instead poses a danger, to their lives and their futures. Keep that in mind the next time you consider calling the cops.

Emily Bazelon was a Slate senior editor from 2005 to 2014. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

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