I received a copy of a letter from John Cusick, a fellow journalist with the Communications Workers of America who was writing as an angry husband and father.
"On June 10, at about 7 p.m. my 18-year-old son, in his 1982 Honda Accord, pulls up in front of our home in Takoma, D.C. The cruisers surround his car. Five U.S. Park Police officers close in. They force my son and his three friends to the ground, level pistols at them and handcuff them. My wife hears the commotion, comes out on the front porch and screams at the sight. She is told by one of the officers to, `Get your ass back in the house.' "
Just reading that made me angry enough to see why Cusick and the other parents involved would consider legal action against the police. But there is other action, of a more personal nature, that I wish would be considered as well. For the breach of confidence between law enforcement and our community will never be bridged through more conflict.
First, what would be so terrible about the U.S. Park Police going back to Mrs. Cusick and apologizing? Everybody knows that police have a challenging job controlling a scene where suspects are presumed armed and that in the heat of making arrests, they occasionally say the wrong things. Rather than denying it, which is what police always do, offering a heartfelt apology for the discomfort they caused would go a long way toward reestablishing badly needed trust.
Here is why the police showed up at the Cusicks' home in the first place, according to Park Police. You tell me if the reason was justified.
The Cusicks' son, Alex, had let a friend use his car while he was in class at Montgomery Community College. The friend picked up two other young men and headed north through Rock Creek Park to get Alex from school. On the way, one of them began playing with a water gun.
They drove past a bicyclist on West Beach Drive who would later report to Park Police that someone inside the car -- he had memorized the license plate -- had pointed a gun at him. After picking up Alex, the young men headed to the Cusick home, where they were met by police, who had used the license plate number to get the address.
Cusick saw a racial angle in the pursuit: The Cusicks are white; his son's three friends are black. The bicyclist is white, as are all of the officers who were dispatched to the Cusick house.
"I can't help wonder: if a black bicyclist reported a similar incident involving a car full of white youths, would the Park Police have dispatched the same force with equal prejudice?" Cusick wrote.
In light of the many racially charged encounters between white police and black people throughout the country, Cusick's racial concern is valid. But consider this, from an official law enforcement point of view:
On June 7, three teenagers, all black, were wounded when a motorist opened fire on the car in which the youths were riding along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. This, too, was within U.S. Park Police jurisdiction.
On April 30, three men in their twenties, all black, were wounded when a motorist in a passing car on Route 50 in Cheverly sprayed their car with bullets. Two weeks earlier, two women, both black, were wounded when a gunman in an older-model Cadillac opened fire while they were driving along in a Nissan Maxima. A man following them in a Volvo also was shot at.
And on April 10, Truong Duc Le, 21, of Takoma Park, was fatally struck by gunfire from a passing car while driving on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway.
In each case, the people who were shot had recently left a D.C. nightclub and the shooters, when they could be seen, were reported to be black. No arrests have been made, and community pressure is mounting on law enforcement officials throughout the area to catch those responsible.
It is terribly unfortunate and a most distressing sign of the times that a young black man holding what turns out to be a water gun in the back seat of a car would be considered a suspect. But the reality is that there are people out there, black men by all accounts, riding through our community shooting at people from their cars.
None of this excuses bad police behavior, which is tolerated far less than, say, black-on-black homicides. Having a better understanding of what police are up against, we ought to be able to forgive certain missteps -- but only if they admit their mistakes and make the requisite apologies.
Even when the police in the Cusick case discovered that what had been reported to be a "silver plated" gun was, in fact, a clear plastic water gun, the three young black men were detained and photographed for police records.
This is unacceptable and falls into the category of police harassment. The police had nabbed people who turned out not to be armed, and they owed it to the young men and their parents to acknowledge their mistake. Instead, law-abiding citizens were left feeling nothing but hostility toward the police.
Without the trust and cooperation of the community they serve, police are useless. That's why there are so many killers on the loose as it is.
Cusick rightly commended the young men for the way they kept their cool until being released into the custody of their parents. But let's face it: In this day and age, there was some naivete shown by riding around in a car while aiming a toy gun out of a window.
Rather than a matter of police-community relations, that's a lesson best addressed by a father to his son.