One of the biggest challenges in the ongoing debate about police violence is that, too many times, victims never get to tell their side of the story because they’ve been killed. Too often, all we get is the official police version of events or bystander accounts or, if we’re “lucky,” video. Too often, the voices — Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and a depressingly long list of others — have been silenced.
It’s an insult on top of a tragic injustice, and there’s often a pattern: The dead wind up being put on trial in the court of public opinion, having their character questioned, even though they’re the ones who were violated. (Although he was killed by a cop wannabe, not a police officer, think of Trayvon Martin.) Police are often exonerated for committing violence that common sense should tell almost anyone, badge or no badge, is wrong. Then, after the fact, people say: It’s tragic, but the police did everything by the book. But what if doing things by the so-called book keeps getting people killed or puts citizens at risk?
Two weeks ago, I thought it was about to happen to me.
I was in a beauty supply shop after finally deciding to start using proper products for my type 3C hair. Tucked in my curls were my new noise-canceling headphones, a Hanukkah present that I was already putting to use: Sometimes I just need to tune out the world for a bit, and as I browsed the aisles, carrying my gym bag, my music was going.
Browsing, I eventually made it over to the shampoo/conditioner aisle, but couldn’t make up my mind: How different can these conditioners be? Finally, I grabbed a white bottle of product and turned to go to the register when I was caught completely off-guard by a Nassau County police officer standing a few feet from me with his gun drawn. Almost immediately, I saw another officer, also with his gun drawn.
I couldn’t hear them (remember, the headphones), but I figured out that they were telling me not to move as they shifted to the next aisle — which briefly seemed like a good thing, because I thought it meant they weren’t looking for me. Wrong.
I raised my hands, with one hand open and the other hand still holding the conditioner.
Now — after the fact — I know what they were yelling at me: One officer told me to get down on the floor and put my hands forward. Not fully understanding what was being said, I responded, terrified and in disbelief that what was happening was real.
What is happening?
Just follow my instructions! Put your hands on the ground and move them forward!
I can’t hear you, my headphones!
It was all I could think of saying to let them know that I was trying to comply; that I just couldn’t hear everything they were telling me. The last thing I wanted was some crazy mistake to end my life, like what happened to Daniel Shaver:
“After the officer involved was acquitted of second-degree murder charges, officials in Arizona publicly released graphic video showing Daniel Shaver crawling on his hands and knees and begging for his life. … The graphic video, recorded by [the officer’s] body camera, shows Shaver and the woman exiting the hotel room and immediately complying with commands from multiple officers.”
I’ve watched that video over and over. Shaver is given a bunch of commands and at one point he’s told to crawl forward. As he does, it looks as though his shorts start to slip and he instinctively reaches back to pull them up; an officer then fires multiple times and kills him.
Among the reactions to the Shaver video, YouTuber “officer401” said that in his view, the officer was legally justified in shooting Shaver, but then asked, rhetorically, if the officers on the scene were in “any actual immediate jeopardy” and answered it, “no.” Reddit commenter “InsomniacAlways” wrote, “Of course I agree the poor guy shouldn’t have been killed, but the officer told him several times not to reach for his waist and the kid still did.” Twitter user @nickhaia said, “Condolences to the Shaver family but if you guys are seriously saying it’s only the cops fault then get real. The cop did everything by the book, the instructions were simple but the civilian didn’t comply. Hence why the cop saw an immediate threat and shot him.”
So, there I was, with the NCPD officers ordering me to do something pretty similar. In the moment, I kept yelling that I had headphones on and couldn’t hear them clearly. Somehow, eventually, I was handcuffed, face down on the shop carpet and one of the officers took off my headphones. I couldn’t really move at that point, but at least I could hear instructions and follow them.
And in kind of sickening way, that was the first moment I felt some level of being safe.
I’m no different from Shaver, no more deserving, no smarter. I just ran into a less trigger-happy officer than he did, and I lived. I hadn’t broken any laws, so no charges were filed. After the cuffs came off, one of the officers told me that when the 911 call went out, they were told that an armed robbery was in progress. I also overheard the clerk, who had called the police, tell the officers that she never saw a weapon, but I got the impression that she thought I had been shoplifting. (I was told later that while I was walking around, my gym bag had knocked bunch of items off the shelves, which had drawn the clerk’s attention.)
I was relieved but furious: The whole misunderstanding could have ended my life.
It was a real-life reminder that whether you live or die at the hands of police can hinge on your appearance or someone else’s fear — things that don’t correlate to law, justice, guilt or innocence. When I tweeted about what had happened, a lot of the responses were some version of: They did everything “by the book.” Maybe they did. But that’s what’s so scary. Doing things by the book could have included killing me.
What if I had instinctively reached for the headphones? What if, instead of a white bottle of conditioner, I had picked up a black bottle and one of the officers thought I was holding a gun?
Each time I replay the events in my mind, I think of another seemingly innocent detail that, if it changed just a little bit, could have resulted in my death. And if that had happened, I doubt anyone would have been held accountable. Yeah, I have my problems with the way everyone involved handled the situation, but I also have a problem with “by the book.” Even if police followed it to the letter, I still could have been killed.
Editor’s note: The Washington Post contacted the Nassau County (New York) Police Department to request a response to the author’s version of these events, as described on social media. The department responded via email: “This officer followed proper protocol to protect the public and himself while responding to a 911 call for a Robbery in progress with a weapon.”