I have a lot of thoughts on what’s happening in Ferguson, MO, but before I go into depth about those, I’d like to share a story from my recent past.
Sometime a few months ago I walked into my house and caught a burglar in mid-act. In fact he literally just walked into my house a few minutes before I arrived, because at the time of my arrival he was only just walking up the stairs. This almost certainly occurred because in my frantic rush to make my noon Crossfit class that I left my house for at 11:57, I accidentally failed to lock the door. Sadly Crossfit has not yet made me fast enough to get 6 blocks away in 3 minutes.
As soon as I came in he immediately looked at me, and with a shocked face he began to apologize. He told me that he had the “wrong house” and that he was supposed to be “visiting his friend”. He came outside, let me check his Qdoba bag (it was empty), and apologized profusely over and over.
He seemed very nonthreatening but do I know for sure he’s not armed? Is there any benefit to getting into a possibly violent altercation with this burglar when the moment has passed and he’s simply going to walk away, with no harm coming to anyone? In my mind the answer was no, and I was happy to just let him go.
For some insane reason I decided to give him a little mini-interrogation first. I mean you can’t really let him go without making him sweat a little bit. I asked him what his friend’s name was, and he quickly replied “John”. Then I hit him with a real tough question:
“What was his last name?”
He seemed to delay maybe a fraction of a second, but then his answer came out: “John Amos”. You can read more about his friend here “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Amos”
So off he went, making a big show of looking at google maps on his phone and telling me “now I see, it was the 1500 block!” and naturally once he turned the corner I called the police and explained my story. As I’m sure is standard in all neighborhoods when there is a minor burglary attempt, the cops arrived within 2 minutes.
They asked me for a description and I told them:
“He was African-American, in his mid 40’s, wore glasses, was slightly overweight, had no facial hair, was about 5’8, and had a bag from Qdoba.” I couldn’t remember what he was wearing. Note to self: Next time you are having a conversation with someone who tries to rob you, pay attention to what they are wearing.
Within a minute or two the officer at my house got a call that they had a possible suspect that they wanted me to ID. I can’t say I was excited about this, as obviously my life is easier if he just walks free. For some reason in this particular case my desire for revenge and justice was not so high. I even felt like we had a real bond there for a moment. However I know that he might do this again to someone else, so I really didn’t feel a choice in the matter.
I got in the back of the cop car, and they drove me a block away to face the suspect. I have to say I was especially impressed with the work of the Philadelphia Police Department. While it wasn’t the man who attempted to rob my house, he was an absolute dead ringer for the description I gave the police. Well he was a dead ringer except for the fact that he wasn’t in his mid 40s (he looked about 25), he didn’t wear glasses, he was very tall and lanky, he had a mustache and he didn’t have a bag from Qdoba. But this man was definitely African-American, the cops did not mess that part up at all.
After the .2 seconds that it took for me to tell the cops that “no this isn’t him and it doesn’t look anything like him”, the cops simply shrugged and then put the man back in the car. I was a bit confused why they did that and the officer’s answer was “oh we’re looking at him for something else also”.
What if I didn’t get quite as good a look at the suspect as I did? What if the man looked at least a little more like the man who tried to rob me? What if one or both of the previous statements were true and I was angry for revenge and I convinced myself that it was probably him? Do you know what one simple statement from me would do to an innocent man’s life? If I said “yes, that’s him”, this man’s life goes into complete chaos. If he has any other previous arrests or felonies, he could be looking at serious jail time. When black men are put in this situation much more frequently than other men, where a single witness ID can destroy their life, some of these men are going to unfortunately have their lives destroyed.
One day I’m going to try a little experiment. Maybe I’ll call the police and inform them that a 20 year old Caucasian, with blond hair, about 5’6, wearing a leather jacket, was trying to rob me. I’ll then wait to see if they take me to ID a 40 year old suspect who’s over 6 foot tall, dark haired and wearing a suit and tie.
So that is just one little story. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s a very big deal. In any case I promise to blog again the next time a cop parades me around to multiple witnesses as a potential burglar. Or the next time a cop makes a specific point to tell me to get out of the middle of the street. Or the next time a cop says anything to me at all.