Race and Policing

Michael E. Kirkpatrick ·

I recently read an article in The Washington Post titled “My white neighbor thought I was breaking into my own apartment. Nineteen cops showed up.” The link to the article had come from a blog I follow, Daring Fireball, written by tech and Apple commentator John Gruber.

The timing of the article was coincidental. The same evening I was reading the Washington Post article I was socializing in the courtyard of my apartment complex with my neighbors, one of whom is a college student at a local community college and happens to be black. I shared the article with him — the article is by and about a woman who lives and works an hour from here in Santa Monica — to get his reaction. He then told me a story that shook me.

It was daytime and he’d been walking to a local park via local streets and then a main thoroughfare here in Long Beach, Second Street and Belmont Shore. Evidently, somewhere along his walk a resident had called the police to report a suspicious character who was “canvasing houses” potentially with the intent to burglarize them. The description of that person was a match for my neighbor.

While walking down second street, two Long Beach Police offices on patrol saw him and stopped him. He was detained on the street for half an hour before being released. The officers questioned him, searched him and had him sit temporarily in the back of their car according to his report.

At the end of his story, he said he didn’t blame the police. They were just doing their job. I was having trouble comprehending that feeling; I would have been upset to say the least.

Then today I read Police Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks, of the Santa Monica Police Department, response to the Washington Post story.

…As a Black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how this experience has made her feel. On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response. This seeming dichotomy may be difficult for some to accept, particularly given the national dialogue. From my perspective, the 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary. Put yourself in his place. Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes…

This incident is reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink, the image of an old woman, or you see the beautiful woman’s profile. Some will see this circumstance as an indictment of law enforcement while others will see it as further proof of the breakdown in police-community relations. For me, I don’t see this incident as either of those things. Instead, this incident presents a clear and present opportunity for all facets of our community and this Police Department to continue to work together, to engage in on-going conversations about the realities and myths of the protective function inherent in policing, and to emphasize the importance of community, particularly in terms of knowing one’s neighbors. I hope we can all be more thoughtful before we rush to condemn the actions of a group of police officers who were doing their best to keep our community safe. I welcome the opportunity to engage our community in these all- important conversations.

Well said Chief Seabrooks.