It seemed a reasonable request.
A woman who was nearly nine months pregnant didn’t want to be late for a doctor’s appointment at a hospital in Northwest Washington.
She told this to the D.C. police officer who stood near her car. He had stopped the vehicle after he noticed the tint of its windows. They seemed too dark. Then, when he got closer, he saw that the woman’s husband, who was about to get out of the car, wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The two men were discussing the seat belt violation when the couple made the request:
Could the woman drive on to her appointment at the hospital while the man stayed behind and received the ticket?
The officer’s answer:
She could get out of the car and walk.
And just like that, on a November morning on a street in the nation’s capital, a mother-to-be had her Starbucks moment — a slap-in-the-face reminder that a line had been drawn between who deserves respect and who doesn’t.
The two African American men who were arrested for sitting without ordering at a Philadelphia Starbucks reached a settlement last week with the city for a symbolic $1 and a promise that the government would fund a $200,000 program to help young entrepreneurs. The agreement came after a video of the arrest went viral, sparking protests and a national conversation about racial profiling.
But what if there had been no video, no proof that the men who showed up for a business meeting left in handcuffs before being detained for nearly nine hours? Would everyone who expressed outrage have felt the same way if they hadn’t seen for themselves how easily injustice plays out in the most normal of settings under the most casual of circumstances?
It’s easy to rally against the explosive, and sometimes deadly, clashes between police officers and people of color. No one should get shot eight times in their relative’s backyard for holding a cellphone.
But much more concerning — and where we have failed miserably in our desire to counterattack rather than listen — are the many unseen ugly encounters that don’t lead to protests or public apologies. No one is going to start a march if a police officer curses at a mother in front of her children, but in that moment, even if bones aren’t broken, something is shattered.
The most disturbing part is our collective culpability in this. We have, for the most part, accepted with shrugs that these incidents happen more to some groups than to others.
Ask yourself this. The race of the pregnant woman is not mentioned above. Would it surprise you if she were white?
What if she were black, or Hispanic, or South Asian?
Her encounter with police was not captured on video by a bystander. There’s no hashtag to express outrage on her behalf. Her name has not even been made public.
But a detailed account of the encounter can be found on the website of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, which posts decisions from lawyers who review evidence, including body camera footage, before deciding whether the complaints have merit. The lawyer assigned to the pregnant woman’s case found that the officer used “demeaning and offensive” language and harassed her. The officer not only gave her husband a $50 ticket for the seat belt violation but also slapped the woman with a $1,000 ticket for an unlawful window tint. The penalty should have been a $50 citation, and he should have tested the windows. He didn’t.
The woman’s race is not listed in the complaint. But I know it (and will tell you later) because I requested it. I also asked about the race of a young man mentioned in a complaint that details what happened early one evening at a park in Northeast Washington.
The young man was sitting on a picnic table, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a backpack slung over his shoulders. A playground was nearby. So were young children. A police car drove by, and the young man gazed at it too long. An officer said that caught his attention, as did an “L-shaped bulge” in the backpack that he claimed to see from the car. The officer approached the young man and asked whether he could search the bag. The young man said there was nothing in it and denied the search request. The officer told him he was going to pat down the bag. The young man again said no and pulled away. The officer patted it down anyway.
No weapons were found. No one was hurt. But something was broken.
The lawyer who reviewed the case for the complaints office concluded that the young man posed no danger to himself or anyone else and that the officer did not have enough grounds to conduct a stop and frisk. He needed more than a “vague hunch.”
“To decide otherwise means that every individual in a high crime area and wearing a backpack would be subject to being stopped and frisked,” he wrote.
Law enforcement officers have incredibly high-stress jobs and sprint toward dangerous situations that most people would run from. They deserve our respect and even the benefit of the doubt when the circumstances surrounding their actions are unclear. But a person just has to look at the complaints in the District — the majority of which are filed each year by black men and women — to see that trust in the police is often lost in the most mundane encounters. These are not high-stress, high-stake moments. These are situations in which officers hold all the power and choose how much respect and consideration to give a person.
In another complaint, a government worker was on his way to play basketball when officers stopped his car, alleging he failed to signal a turn. They asked for permission to search his vehicle, and he said no. So they towed it and told him to walk home.
Want to guess his race?
The D.C. police department is well aware it needs to work on these tensions. The department recently announced that officers will study race theory and visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of a training program that aims to teach them about the black experience. Police Chief Peter Newsham said he hopes all sworn and civilian members will receive the training by the end of the year.
That’s a smart step. We should all learn more about one another. But if police officers are serious about showing everyone respect — and the department requires them to do so — they need to try harder to see the situation from the other side. If they need help, they can try asking themselves this: “What if that were my . . .”
What if that were my pregnant wife who was late for an appointment?
What if that were my son sitting in a park?
What if that were my co-worker who was heading to play basketball?
I realize I haven’t told you the race of the people above. That’s because, in a country where two black men get handcuffed for simply sitting in a coffee shop, you already know it.