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40 percent of black Americans distrust the criminal justice system: Why I’m one of them

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For most people in society, their interactions with the police range from nonexistent to fairly neutral: that time the sheriff found you and your friends in the woods messing around and sent you home without notifying your parents.

That time when the police came over and helped you get your cat out of your neighbor’s tree.

Or even that time when something did happen, and you called the police and they came, took notes, and left to pursue the case.

Despite my best efforts, this is not my experience with the police.

I've been detained and jailed for "meeting the description" of someone who robbed a liquor store. (The thief was a 6-foot-1, 200-pound, light-skinned black man — I'm 5-foot-6 and about 165 on a good day, with a dark chocolate hue.)

I’ve been pulled over in a vehicle dozens of times in my life. I've been pulled over in front of my own house on five separate occasions at four different houses in four states. I've had my car searched on the side of interstates all over America for drugs, weapons, and even smuggled humans in the trunk of my car.

And despite being pulled over all these dozens of times, I've gotten four tickets in my life — which means either I’m the luckiest person in the world or it’s something else.

When I was a teenager, the police tried to arrest me for being in my own home

The first time the police put me in handcuffs, I was 14 years old.

I’d just gotten home from a summer debate camp. My parents were out of town, and they’d left me the key to our Bay Area house under a rock in the backyard. I hopped the fence into the yard, moved away some brush behind the house, and grabbed the key from under the rock.

I unlocked the back door. A few minutes later I was sitting in the living room, watching TV and eating what I would have described as the world’s best Hot Pocket. All was well … until the knock at the door.

The fact that someone was knocking at all was quite strange: I’d been home less than an hour, the entire family was out of town and had been for quite some time, and even when they were home, we almost never had anyone show up unannounced.

“Who is it?” I asked through the door.

“Police,” the voice responded.

I opened the door. I was all of 4-foot-11 and 105 pounds of something not even close to muscle. I saw three officers standing on my front porch. It was apparent one of them had some beef.

He asked me who I was, and I told him. I informed him that this was my house, where I lived with my parents. He asked where they were, and when I told him they were on vacation, he became visibly upset and began asking me questions that, as a 14-year-old, I had no ability to answer in any meaningful way: Did I have proof of identification? Why was I lurking in the backyard? Why would my parents leave me alone for days on end? Where had I hidden the drugs? Could he search the house?

When I told them I had no proof that I lived there, they decided to sit me on the porch, in handcuffs, while they “figured it out.” Next thing I knew, they announced they were taking me to the police station. When I asked what I would be doing there, the officer told me, as nonchalantly as if he were telling me the baked beans were good, “We’ll just detain you in a holding cell until we get it all cleared up” — which sounded so ridiculous that I hardly believed him.

Did they think I’d broken into this random house on a Saturday night and decided to make myself a meal and start watching television?

It was only the arrival of my neighbor and the degree of his anger at seeing me in handcuffs on my own porch that made the police officers finally start to believe that maybe, just maybe, this was my house. Once they received validation from my neighbor that I wasn't the world’s worst criminal and that I actually lived there, they took off my handcuffs and said something about needing to do “what was necessary” to “keep the area safe,” and that despite the “inconvenience” of this action, they hoped I harbored no ill will toward the officers who were clearly “just doing their job.”

Then they left. No apology, just a justification for their behavior and an expectation I wouldn’t let it get the better of me.

To this day, I ask myself: What if my neighbor had come home 20 minutes later? What if he’d already been home but didn't know what was going on? What if he’d just been silent, pulled up to his garage, looked over at the officers on the porch and me in handcuffs, and just thought, “I don’t want to be involved?”

It seems like I would have gotten to spend the next two or three days in a holding cell, despite committing no crime.

The thing that got to me most was that the officers were coming to my house to check to see if a crime had been committed. This is the kind of situation when the police should be at their most helpful, when they should be there to assist you.

In this instance, no crime had been committed, but nonetheless, I became criminalized in the process of them searching for a crime — they looked for a crime and saw a black man, and then just made the assumption.

This was not a good first impression of the police. I never told my parents, or really anyone else, what happened that day. The idea of reliving sitting on my porch, in handcuffs, hoping and praying to God that I wasn't going to sit in a jail cell for days on end until my parents returned; the idea of watching my mother break down and cry for the injustice to "her baby" and the idea of my dad losing his mind and doing something that I now understand could have been a death sentence — it was more than I could handle.

I didn't talk to friends about it: Most of them were white, and someone was bound to make a joke about it and risk being choked to death because I'd just had enough. So I just stayed silent about it, never spoke about it. This is the first time I've given it reflective thought in more than 30 years.

But it still colors every interaction I have with the police. It's at the core of all of my distrust of the police. It created in me a fear of the institution whose function is my protection.

Now if my house ever gets broken into, rather than calling the police so that I can file an insurance claim, I won’t bother and take the stolen items as a loss. My privileged friends think this is insane. But for me, calling the cops just means they’ll treat me like a criminal, asking me questions that insult my integrity.

A man pointed his gun at me — and then the police made me feel like I was the criminal

Earlier this year, I was driving around Silicon Valley running errands and decided my last stop would be the closest grocery store. I was famished, and was hoping to resolve my hunger with a healthy amount of bacon. I loaded the cart with bacon and things you might eat with bacon (eggs, bread to make toast, burgers for later), paid, and headed to my car to head home, bumping Rebirth Brass Band in my head. As I went to open my car door, an individual I didn't know and hadn’t seen approached me and shouted something at me. I wasn't paying much attention, so I had to “Huh?” As I looked over to see who was talking to me, I realized that it was a young man and he had a gun pointed at me.

All I could do was freeze and hope this person didn’t decide to shoot me. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You ain’t him, you old,” and walked away.

In about 15 seconds, I went from absolute despair to the kind of relief felt when a doctor tells you that your cancer is in remission, without the surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. I felt rattled, but in reflection I had, for lack of a better term, dodged a bullet and was going to continue with my day.

I wasn’t about to call the police.

But then shots rang out in an adjacent parking lot. The police arrived almost immediately, asking questions of anyone who might know something. And because apparently someone saw me being held at gunpoint and told the police to talk to me, they approached me.

They asked me to sit in the back of the car, which I declined, and sat in front with the officer, with one standing outside the door. I gave them all the information I remembered: style/kind/color of gun, an approximate height, and the direction he walked off toward.

But I, in all honesty, didn’t remember what the person looked like, and couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. So when they asked me to identify the man, I told them I couldn’t. The tone of the conversation went south.

I was informed that my “unwillingness to aid in the case” would be seen by prosecutors and jurors as signs of guilt, and that a district attorney might even decide I was part of the crime, as opposed to a victim.

I was told that I could be held as a “material witness” and could be detained by the police until I offered them information. (I’m not sure of the process entirely, but I’m fairly certain he was just lying to me.)

Let’s remember: I was the victim of a crime. Despite being held at gunpoint moments earlier, I found myself being criminalized, again, in a moment when I should have been treated as a victim.

I hate that I don't trust the police. It means I can't move as freely through society as others can. It means there are places I can't go because I know there will be police there, and as a general rule, I don't go places where I think it's likely I'll have to deal with police. It means when I see an accident or someone who is in need of help, my desire and willingness to help deteriorates, not because I don't want to do the right thing but because I fear that somehow the police will target and criminalize me.

I’m not alone — 40 percent of black people in America have little to no confidence in the criminal justice system

Our understanding of police harassment is far too limited: We tend to think of things like the police shooting unarmed men and women or a cop giving a mentally challenged homeless man a thorough beating for stealing a sandwich from a store. These things are horrifying and need to be stopped immediately. But I would say those aren’t as much harassment as they are abuse.

Police harassment is much more subtle and goes virtually unnoticed by 80 percent of the people in society, as it almost never affects them in any meaningful way. But for the other 20 percent, being innocent won’t provide sufficient protection. Having done nothing wrong doesn’t keep you from being criminalized.

A Gallup poll released in 2014 indicates the chasm between black and white people with regard to police treatment: 40 percent of black people interviewed said they have little to no confidence in the criminal justice system, compared with 30 percent of white people.

Fear is at the forefront of my lack of faith. Fear is one of the biggest paralyzers in a democratic system. If people are afraid to call the police, then crime spikes in those areas. If people are afraid to interact with the police, they avoid them in times of need, which negates the function of the police force to people like me.

This is best explained by something I’d like to call the “extra question” principle: where the police first ask the legitimate questions — “Why are you driving with a broken taillight?” or “Why don’t you have a helmet on?” — which are followed up by questions like “Where are you headed?” or “Do you have anything on you?” This means people don’t even think about approaching the police, knowing they can be discriminated against essentially on a “hunch” — and that it’s the objects of those hunches that pay. It’s why Trayvon Martin was followed. It’s why Philando Castile was pulled over initially. It was the beginning of the end of Sandra Bland.

A society where a portion of population is afraid of the police, and where the police are also fearful of black and brown bodies, is one where we get to contrast the treatment of Akai Gurley, who was shot by a police officer while walking with his girlfriend in a New York City stairwell, and Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing multiple people in a black church, and was arrested calmly and given a hamburger by an officer. The system performs exactly as intended: to remind black and brown bodies of their (lack of) inherent worth to society.

Doug Dennis is the president of the educational consulting company DCSP Consulting, a former high school teacher, a writer, a debater, and an avid poker player.


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