So, I know this isn't usually the kind of thing we do here, and I apologize, but after reading about Joshua Gilbert's two encounters with the authorities, not to mention the recent incidents in the news involving police and people of color, I felt the need to mention a police encounter that I had in the spring that I'm still upset about (I think I've probably just been looking for an excuse to vent about this and am now taking it. Or perhaps I wanted an outside perspective).
[STAFF: DO NOT FRONT PAGE]
First, to set the stage. I live in Massachusetts, in a city of 150,000. This isn't the south, this isn't the country. I am half black on my father's side, as a result I'm not super dark but I am noticeably and definitively "not white." My grandfather (my father's father) started a funeral home here back in 1961. It is now one of the two largest "black" funeral homes in the area. We average 150 cases a year and regularly work with city police officers during house removals and police escorts for funerals. This same grandfather was also the city police commissioner in the early 1980s. We're on a first name basis with they mayor and the entirety of the city council. All this means my last name is one most of the police force knows and respects.
Our funeral home sits on the corner of a decently traveled intersection, and my house is on the cross street that runs along the side of the funeral home. It's 320 feet from the front door of the funeral home to the front door of my house, both doors are in direct line of sight to each other. So, one night in early spring around 1 AM I set off on the brief trek from the funeral home to the house. As I cross the street in front of the funeral home I see a police car approaching from the left, about 500 feet down the road. I pay it no mind because the funeral home is on the main route between police headquarters and the municipal fuel depot, and why would I need to concern myself with a cop car anyway? By the time the cop car passes behind me I'm a good 70 feet down my street and I've already forgotten about the car. Then I hear it's tires squeal as it turns down the next street over.
The car roars around the block, turns onto my street, and makes straight for me. I freeze, targeted by the headlights and the additional spotlight they aim at me. By now I'm in front of my own house. The two officers jump out of the car, hands on their sidearms. I can hear one of them undo the snap.
"Where are you going?" one asks gruffly.
"I'm going to my house, right here." I gesture at the house behind me.
"Where are you coming from?"
"I'm coming from the funeral home at the corner," I point to the large, well lit sign at the edge of the intersection bearing my last name in bright, white letters. "My name is Steven Harrell."
"Do you have I.D?"
I slowly pull out my wallet and hold out my license containing the same name as the big sign on the corner and the same address as the house behind me. Surely this will take care of whatever the hell is going on. One officer comes forward and takes it, the other keeps enough distance to react if I make any sudden movements. The officer with my license steps back to his partner, they have a quick, quiet exchange I can't make out. The one with my license steps forward again.
"You fit the description of someone we're looking for, except he has a baseball cap," the officer says.
Ah, so you cornered me in front of my house, ready to draw on me because you're "looking for a brown man in a hat," I think to myself. Makes perfect sense.
I wait for an apology. I wait for acknowledgement that this was ridiculous, that this was excessive, that I no longer need to stand outside freezing in the 45 degree air in a tee shirt and can finally go into the nice warm house directly behind me.
Instead I get "We'd like to search your backpack to make sure you didn't hide the hat in it."
I feel convinced at this point they have no probable cause. I feel that between my explanation of why I'm out at this hour and the state-issued evidence tying me to these two buildings a football field apart should be sufficient to prove I'm not the person they're allegedly looking for. But it's late. And I'm cold. And I'm tired. And I just want this to be over. So I hand them my backpack. They search it, including the pockets that are far too small to hold a hat. I can see them visibly disappointed that they only found a laptop and a few pencils.
With nothing but a "Have a good night," they hand me back my bag, get in their car, and drive off. As they're climbing into the car I hear one of them say to the other "Well, it was worth a shot."