By P. Bernard
Let me start by saying I am a middle aged white man. Like many of you, I believed that one’s skin color can be a factor in the attitude police have towards the public. Today I am not so sure I believe it. It may have a factor in how physical they might get with you, but it does not seem to affect their attitude towards people at all. I am a pretty large man at 6’ and 325 pounds. Feeling intimidated or fearful of bodily harm is a foreign concept to me. It was not such a foreign concept the night of August 28th.
About 11:10 p.m. or so, my wife Jenny woke me up to tell me she thought someone was trying to break in through our kitchen door. The noise woke her. I could hear banging on the door and the locks rattling in the kitchen through the closed bedroom door. I peeked out and could see flashing police, ambulance, and fire engine lights coming from outside. I knew it wasn’t a burglar and panicked, thinking maybe the house was on fire. I could also see several flashlights through all of the kitchen windows as though people were trying to see what was going on inside. All of the lights in our apartment were off and it was totally dark otherwise.
There’s a heroin problem in my area, so once in awhile someone gets a little unlawful around here. People fight over drugs right on the corners sometimes, but in 5 years there hasn’t been a peep on my street. In the middle of the night last night, my wife wakes me up to tell me there’s half a dozen cops busting on the door. There’s a paramedic in my driveway with a teenage girl that looks like she took a beating. My initial thoughts were “Oh no, they think I did this.”
I walked into the kitchen towards the door. The pounding I heard sounded like someone trying to beat it down. It was no wonder my wife thought someone was trying to break in, but we could not see the flashing lights from our bedroom until I opened the bedroom door. I called out that I was coming, but the pounding continued like there were a thousand zombies coming for our brains. I could not understand how they were in the hallway to begin with and thought they had broken through the back door. I was really starting to think the house was on fire but was confused because I couldn’t smell any fire. It was not until the next day that I realized the tenant on the third floor had let them in. I unlocked my kitchen door and opened it enough so that they could see me. I was wearing boxer shorts and a T shirt, and sporting the messiest bed head hair you have ever seen. I made sure my hands were visible at all times once I saw the police. Getting shot or tazed is never on my agenda and these guys didn’t sound very happy to be here.
I immediately asked “What’s going on, officers? What’s going on? How can I help you?” I could hear people upstairs talking. I think I heard them grilling the tenant on the third floor, but couldn’t pay attention to it. I thought it was the couple on the second floor answering questions, but had to pay attention to this officer that was screaming at me.
My questions of what is going on were completely ignored. Rather than a civilized conversation, questions were fired at me as though I was some sort of criminal suspect. The whole time, this one officer that did most of the talking seemed ready to pounce on me at any moment. His hands were on his utility belt ready to pull out whatever instruments may have been on it. All but one of the officers and an EMT that was in the hall for some reason, seemed perfectly content to let him do whatever he wanted with me. From that point on, I made certain to use the word “sir” a lot, and to keep my hands in full view at all times. I began to realize that being a middle aged white dude was not affecting this officer’s attitude towards me. To him, I was a suspect and therefore not to be trusted. If my lips were moving, I must have been lying.
“Two drugged up girls just ran into this house. This girl outside swears she saw them come in here. Where are the two drugged up girls that just ran in here!?” I was asked, in a very accusatory tone. His voice was at an intensely loud level. There was a lot of hostility in it.
I said “What are you talking about, sir? All this pounding woke us from a sound sleep.”
He said “This girl outside swears she saw two drugged up girls run into this house, this door right here,” as he pointed to our back door. “Where are they!?”
I said “I really know nothing about it, sir. Like I said, sir, I had been sound asleep only minutes ago. Sir.”
I made sure to use the word “sir” a lot, and be as polite as f the Queen of England Herself were standing before me. It did not help at all.
Then the officer yelled “Two drugged up girls we’re looking for just ran into this house. Where did they go!? Where are they hiding!? Where are you hiding them!?”
Again, I said “I have no idea what you’re talking about. There is no one here except me and my wife.”
“Where are they hiding? Where are you hiding them? How can you be so sure these girls aren’t in there?” I was again asked.
“Because nobody else lives down here except for me or my wife,” I said. “If they’re here, they broke in while we were sound asleep.”
He completely misheard what I had just said, or still thought I was lying.
“So they ARE here! Where are they hiding!” he yelled, and got in my face. It was clear that he had not heard me. One officer had, the one officer that seemed civil, and affirmed what I had said as the one yelling at me continued.
I said again, this time deliberately slow and clear to be sure he understood what I was saying, “No sir, they are not, unless they broke in while I was sleeping. Sir.” His hand had not moved from his belt where I was not sure if he had his hand on a stun gun or pepper spray or what. I did not want to find out. He held that stance the entire time, as though he was waiting for an excuse to stomp me.
Then I was questioned randomly by all of them, all at once, about who lived upstairs, where my children were and how old are they, are there any younger girls in the building (after already telling him that nobody under 37 lives in this house). None of them seemed interested in my name or who I was. They did not seem to believe me that whoever they were looking for was not in my apartment.
The one who did most of the talking immediately turned to the basement door, which was behind him. The basement door has a hasp on it for a padlock, with a pin through it to keep it from popping open by itself.
He asked “Is this the only way in the house to the basement!?”
I said “yes, sir, it is.”
He asked “How can you be so sure they aren’t down there!?”
I told him “I cannot be, sir, as I was sound asleep 5 minutes ago. Please, feel free to go down and take a look.” At that point, I felt the 4th Amendment didn’t exist on Coram Street at all.
The one civil-acting officer told him he should calm down. They could not be down there because the pin was in the hasp and the outside door had been secured when they arrived. He told the one grilling me that they would have to have keys to get inside. This officer seemed to know at that point that they were all barking up the wrong tree, but this one bully style guy would not admit it. Instead, he continued down the path on thinking I was a suspect, hiding something from them.
Then he asked “How do I know you didn’t let them in and put the hasp in after they went down there? If I come in there am I going to find them hiding in your closets or something!? Why are you covering for them?!”
At that point, I pushed my door wide open and said “Officers, maybe it would be better if you came inside and looked around for yourself. Please, feel free to do so. If they’re here, they broke in, so please, feel free.”
I was done being accused and treated like a criminal. To Hell with my 4th Amendment rights, I thought, let’s get this guy out of here before he decides to crack my skull open. I was convinced any other reply was going to be met with a club to my head. What I really wanted to do was tell him to go pound sand and get a warrant. I felt as though if I did not let them in, they were going to come in anyway and beat me for my trouble.
In fact, it seemed a certainty.
I was bullied and strong armed for an “invitation” into my home. As far as I knew at the time they had broken in to begin with, so I was not assuming they would stop at the outer door. I had no desire to get my skull cracked and spend the night in the hospital and/or jail for exercising my rights. I was pretty scared and thought that was exactly what was going to happen.
At that point, an officer outside on the porch reported that the girl who sent them to our door admitted that she was not so sure these drugged up girls came into this house. She wasn’t so sure she had been entirely truthful. She was messed up on drugs. They all groaned in disappointment. “Sorry to bother you,” they said. Their apology sounded more like disappointment.
They took the girl to the hospital in the ambulance. Turns out, she had overdosed on heroin and was out of her mind. Everyone was gone in a matter of minutes with absolutely no explanation of the intrusion to our home. The police blotter yesterday shows only a girl picked up here and admitted to the hospital for a drug overdose. When I sent a message to the police department via their Face Book page, I was told the only information they could give me was on the public police blotter.
I understand the instant distrust the police tend to have with the public. When that distrust turns into bullying and terrorizing innocent bystanders, waking them up in the middle of the night from a sound sleep to question or interrogate, and frightening those innocent bystanders into skirting the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, well then, sir, to that I say it is too much. I treated each of those officers with courtesy and respect, and my courteous cooperation was met with the sort of hostility and suspicion I have only experienced from schoolyard bullies back in grade school.
I understand that when someone reports a crime, the police have the duty to follow up and investigate it. This is not a license to strong arm the public. I believe my civil rights have been abused. I find the police behavior that night as completely unacceptable. It should have been perfectly clear to any reasonable person that we had been sound asleep when they arrived. It should have been obvious to any reasonable person that the word of a wasted junkie might just be less reliable than the honest citizen you viciously roused from a sound sleep.
And I have to add… I seriously wonder how that entire scene would have played out were I not a middle aged white man. That one officer in particular, who did most of the yelling at me, seemed like he was aching to kick my ass. I hate to think what may have happened if I was black or Hispanic or something other than white.
Or, Lord forbid, I had tried to exercise my rights…