A new viral video shows police at a Waffle House in Saraland, Alabama, throwing a black woman on the ground on Sunday, exposing her breasts and suggesting they might “break” her arm after she didn’t cooperate.
According to CBS News, the woman, Chikesia Clemons, was waiting for a waitress to give her the district manager’s phone number after she refused to pay for plastic utensils that she had asked for with her order. Clemons’s waitress canceled the order after Clemons said that she and her friend didn’t have to pay for utensils at the same Waffle House the previous night, Chiquitta Clemons-Howard, Clemons’s mother, told AL.com.
As Clemons waited for the district manager’s card to file a complaint, the officers arrived. The video, filmed by Clemons’s friend Canita Adams, shows the officers grabbing Clemons and throwing her to the floor.
“What are you doing?” Clemons asked.
“I’m about to break your arm — that’s what I’m about to do,” one officer responded.
The officers proceeded to arrest her. She was booked on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to Clemons-Howard.
The Saraland Police Department released the results of its investigation into the incident at a Monday press conference. According to investigators, a Waffle House employee called 911 complaining that two women — Clemons and Adams — and a man were acting “drunk and disorderly” after arriving at the restaurant with alcohol. Video from security cameras showed the three sitting down at the restaurant and soon after getting in an argument with Waffle House staff. Witnesses reportedly told police that Clemons and Adams were profane and threatened staff.
Waffle House arrest update
Warning: Video contains graphic language. Saraland Police discussing the arrest of Chikesia Clemons at Waffle House. Video of her being wrestled to the ground by a police officer early Sunday morning went viral and has been shared across social media.Posted by FOX10 News on Monday, April 23, 2018
Police came in after the 911 call. A Waffle House spokesperson told the New York Times that the “police intervention was appropriate.”
Investigators also confirmed that Waffle House has a policy to charge diners for plastic utensils if they dine in.
Video of the incident went viral, drawing comparisons to another incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in which an employee called the police on two black men who were reportedly waiting for a business associate.
The escalation of the arrest once again puts a spotlight on police use of force in America, particularly against black Americans. There are vast racial disparities in how police use force. And these kinds of incidents, in which a dispute over plastic utensils can escalate into a violent arrest, are a major reason that police have lost so much trust and legitimacy within the black community.
The racial disparities in police use of force
Consider the use of deadly force: Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.7 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.
There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died while in police custody — leading to protests and riots. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager shot Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.
That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.
One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he previously told me, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
Police need to own up to these problems to do their jobs
It’s these type of statistics, along with cases like Clemons’s, that explain the distrust between police and minority communities. But more than simple distrust, these issues also make it more difficult for police to do their jobs and stop crime.
There’s a longstanding criminological concept at play: “legal cynicism.” The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust the government, the police, or the laws.
This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.
There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.
They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.
But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”
That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own, sometimes violent, means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.
“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers wrote, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”
That’s why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it’s important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.
“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, previously told me. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
Cases like Clemons’s feed into the distrust — by signaling to black communities that police aren’t there to protect them but are instead likely to harass them and use excessive force. In that way, these cases make it a lot harder for police to achieve the basic roles they’re meant to fulfill.
For more on American policing’s problems and how to fix them, read Vox’s explainer.