Cops broke into the home of a North Carolina teen and pepper-sprayed him when he argued that he lived there. He did, but he didn’t look like the family portrait on the wall. Excuse enough?
In this case, the victim was a foster child, a young black man who had just come home from school. Neighbors called 911 to report a break-in. But to ignore the young man’s arguments that he lived there, make him feel like he didn’t belong because he wasn’t white like the family photo on the wall? Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t understand how terrifying such an incident is.
I’ve been through it. So have many others. Migrant workers are a favorite target around here. The possible presence of undocumented immigrants is probable cause enough to break into a dwelling and terrify the occupants.
Thirty years ago I was at work. My 13-year-old son was home from school sick that day. He kept the door locked, and believe me, I know my son well enough to be sure of that.
Midmorning, he called me frightened. Someone was banging on the door and shouting. I asked if he could see who it was, and he reported that all he could see was a yellow rain slicker. I immediately told him, “Stay on the phone, I’m calling the police to come find out what what’s going on.”
I switched to another line and dialed the non-emergency number for the local police at my home, because I was in the next county. While I waited on hold, I switched back to my son. “Are you okay?”
Suddenly he cries, “He’s unlocking the door! Someone’s coming in!”
Then with a horrifying click, he hung up the phone. I was still on hold with the police department. I began dialing and redialing my home phone frantically. My heart was in my throat, and hammered so loudly with fear I could barely hear anything. The phone rang and rang with no answer. In a frenzy by now, I wondered what I could do other than keep dialing and endure the interminable hold.
After perhaps three minutes – it felt like an eternity – my son picked up the phone. “Mom, I’m okay. It’s a police officer. I finally got him to listen when I said it was you calling and you were afraid for me.”
Then the bomb, “He wants to know if we know where the XYZs live. I don’t.”
Neither did I. The cop left, but only after giving my son a stern lecture about how he should have opened the door.
When I got through the hold to the desk sergeant, they got an angry mother, not a terrified one. “What is your officer doing unlocking my apartment and walking in?”
Cop: “The door must have been unlocked.”
Me: “I know my son and it was locked. You’re using a master key.”
Cop: “We don’t have one of those.” Uh-huh.
Me: “That still didn’t give him the right to enter my apartment and terrify my son. What are you thinking?”
Cop: “Ma’am, your son should have opened the door.”
I erupted even further: “What the hell are you telling him that for? He’s thirteen and under instructions never to open that door when he’s home alone, and I know damn well it was locked, and what difference did that make anyway? Did you have a warrant?”
Cop: “The door was unlocked ma’am and we were looking for illegals.”
Me: “I don’t care if you were looking for an armed felon. What is wrong with you? We teach kids to stay safe and now you’re demanding a child open a door to a stranger?”
Cop: “Ma’am he could see it was a police officer.”
Me: “Like hell. All he could see was a yellow slicker. It doesn’t matter anyway. Anyone can get a uniform. You need to train your officers better.”
Cop: “We’ll speak to the officer about this, ma’am.”
Me: “And while you’re at it, tell all your officers to never again shout at a child for not opening a door.”
So you see, I know what it’s like. I know the terror. You never feel safe again. Your kids never feel safe again. Any trust they felt for police vanishes.
Too many white Americans think this doesn’t happen. Worse, too many white Americans think this only happens to Those People and they’re okay with that.
This kind of action creates a trauma that endures, and it’s happening all over this country. We need to rein in our police.