If the police were on your front lawn, questioning someone you know about a call they received, what would you do? If you’re Jody Westby, you defend your people. And you do it sternly, with an air of authority only reserved for people who perceive themselves as having as much power as the police.
It’s all on display in the above video, in which Westby comes to the aid of an elderly black man who has been stopped by a pair of police officers. The level of comfort with which she communicates with the officers due to her knowledge of the law and lack of fear of retribution offers a lesson about how the intersection of race, class and privilege can impact the interactions between police officers and some residents.
To begin, this is all taking place on Foxhall Crescent. If you’re not familiar, that’s an area of tony cul-de-sacs, tucked between the Palisades and Wesley Heights. To call it upscale would be an understatement.
The footage itself is shocking, but not in a violent way. The interaction between everyone involved is unlike anything you’d see if this situation were happening in say, Congress Heights or Deanwood.
When the clip starts, we see a black female officer standing in front of a white female on her feet and a black male on the ground. Westby, a white woman, is demanding to understand what happened and why the police are present on her block.
“Excuse me, what address did you get a call for?” she says before walking over to the car to verify the address the call received was for. As it turns out, they were on the wrong block — the alarm had sounded in an adjacent subdivision. But they ran into a local handyman, Dennis Stucky, carrying bags and decided to stop and talk to him.
That’s when Westby told her housekeeper to start filming. From the sounds of their voices, it’s clear that Westby, the camera person and Stucky all know each other. Westby explains that they’re in the wrong place, and — after smiling for the camera — the officer explains that stopping Stucky was reasonable.
“We have a burglar alarm. He’s coming with bags,” the officer says, demonstrating with her hands.
“No,” Westby immediately replies.
“He gets loud and boisterous, of course I want to know who he is,” the officer continues.
“Because you’re accusing him,” Westby retorts.
“I’m not accusing him of anything,” the officer says.
Mind you, Westby is standing between the police car and the officer, on what could potentially be a crime scene, if the assertion of the officers is correct. And that’s where the showstopper comes in. Westby proceeds to chastise the officer for harassing Stucky, and tells them they need to leave. She’s pointing her fingers and gesturing toward the car window. That’s the type of behavior that coming from many other people would be considered dangerous, threatening or violent in some way.
Westby then grabs Stucky by the hand, helps him up and makes the decision to leave the scene with him, on their own. In light of the high profile incidents of police brutality recently, it’s a stunning exercise of rights that goes almost completely unchecked by the officers. As they leave, the officer says: “Ma’am. Stop.”
“She doesn’t have the authority to stop him,” Westby replies, “I’m an attorney and this is wrong. Now please leave our neighborhood.”
“Would you like a card?” is the officer in the car’s reply.
“Just because he’s black, doesn’t mean he’s here to rob a house. He works for us he’s been in this neighborhood for 30 years,” Westby adds.
According to District police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump, “there’s no misconduct by the officer in that video.” Fine, but no one’s accusing anyone of misconduct. What’s so stunning is what appears to be an incredible amount of leeway and deference given to Westby. I’m sure there are thousands of residents across the city who often feel antagonized by police officers who wouldn’t dare talk to an officer in that way, even if they were in the right, for fear of being hurt, arrested or killed.
For sure, the racial component here is impossible to ignore. Westby was stunned by the lack of regard that two black officers showed in dealing with another black citizen. “You got a white woman and a Hispanic woman standing up for a black man against two black cops. … It was shameful how they behaved. And if it were Columbia Heights, or some other neighborhood, it’d probably just be worse,” Westby said Tuesday. She is the CEO of Global Cyber Risk LLC and was working from her home office that day.
“It was very interesting, in the sense of getting a picture of how black cops treat black people,” she continued. “And how humiliating that was for [Stucky]. And how they were treating him just like a dog.”
The fast moving, complicated situation illustrates why Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s plan to have some officers wear body cameras is good idea. Accountability makes everyone safer overall. The police were doing what they do — responding to calls; Westby was completely in the right, in her defense of Stucky.
But sometimes it’s not just about right and wrong. It’s about how.