Rorschach moments

By now I assume that readers of this blog are aware of the incident involving Fay Wells, the young African-American woman who in September was mistaken by a neighbor for a burglar after she locked herself out of her apartment and had to call a locksmith. The neighbor called 9-1-1, telling the dispatcher that he “needed some cops.” He said that his “next door neighbor,” whom he described as a Hispanic man, along with two female companions (also, he said, likely Hispanic), had just broken into into someone else’s apartment.

Within minutes Santa Monica police arrived on the scene. In response to a command to come out with her hands up, Wells emerged from the apartment to face two officers with guns drawn, as well as a barking police dog. Only after officers took Wells to the street with her hands held behind her back, was Wells able to convince them that she lived in the apartment. The case received nationwide, in fact international, attention after Wells wrote an op-ed about it for the Washington Post. (Wells can also be heard on last Monday’s Warren Olney’s KCRW show, Which Way, L.A.?”)

If you haven’t already, I suggest following up on a few links beyond the news coverage. For one, there is the 9-1-1 call that started the whole thing. Then there is the statement that Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released. Along with her statement, Seabrooks also released a 47-minute audio recording of a conversation between Wells and police officers on the scene. The recording begins, unfortunately, only after Wells has established her bona fides. (A transcript of the recording has also been published.) Seabrooks’ response has been the only official response from the City.

The facts of what happened that night don’t appear to be in dispute, but different people interpret them differently. In her statement, Seabrooks invokes the metaphor of a Rorschach test, and she’s certainly right about that.

The facts start with the 9-1-1 call, which is a textbook example about the unreliability of eyewitness observation. The caller is confused both in his facts and his interpretation of what he’s seeing. He identifies the man “tapping” on the lock to get in—the locksmith—as a neighbor breaking into the apartment of someone else. The caller doesn’t identify Wells, his actual neighbor, as a neighbor, but instead includes her as one of two Hispanic “girls.” The caller twice says he “needs” cops, but then a couple of times tries to tell the dispatcher that it’s not an emergency, that he doesn’t “think this is some kind of crazy robbery.” (The dispatcher, trying to get the facts, cuts him off both times.)

Regardless of the caller’s confusion, the 9-1-1 call set the ball rolling for the whole incident. Depending on your perspective, the caller was either a conscientious “eye on the street” protecting the neighborhood (the view of Seabrooks and the caller himself), or otherwise a careless neighbor, possibly tipsy (a possibility that comes up later when Wells and the caller meet—you can listen, and judge for yourself), who can’t fathom that three Hispanics—including a neighbor!—trying to get into a locked apartment in an all-white apartment building at 11:15 on a Sunday evening could be up to any good.

My view? Admittedly with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I lean toward the latter interpretation: this doesn’t sound like a high-crime location and I wish the caller had done “due diligence” before calling. But I also recognize that the caller had probably internalized a lot of the irrational fear that permeates our “Film at 11!” society. To me what the caller relayed to the dispatcher precisely describes a locksmith doing his job, and in my wishful world the caller might have checked first to see if there was a locksmith’s truck parked outside before calling 9-1-1. Even better, and even more idealistic, what if he had called out over the ten feet he says that separated him from the locksmith and said something like, “Hey, everything okay, need any help?” That would have been neighborly, but it’s also nearly impossible to contemplate that he would have done that given our culture of fear. (Open question: would the caller have been more likely to do the neighborly thing if the locksmith had been white?)

The heart of the controversy, however, occurs when the police arrive. As Wells articulates in her op-ed as well as in other statements, she was terrified to emerge from her home to face drawn guns. Because of the barking dog, she couldn’t hear the police identify themselves. Anyone would have been afraid, but as an African-American Wells couldn’t avoid visualizing herself about to become another post-Ferguson victim. When she finds out that 19 officers have answered the call, she believes that they are all there as an overreaction to fear of blacks in an overwhelmingly white city.

From the police perspective, it’s different. As the officers explain to Wells in the 47-minute tape, they believed they had followed prudent standard procedures and would have done the same if she had been white. For all they knew, three burglars were in the apartment and they can’t take Wells’ word for it that she’s the only person there. Three burglars warrant a big response. Guns are drawn because officers get shot at in these circumstances. For all Wells’ fears, they did not shoot or tear up her apartment.

I urge readers to listen to the whole 47 minutes of the tape, if only to hear how easy it is for articulate, intelligent and well-meaning people to talk past each other. You’ll hear both sides, and I suspect your sentiments will go back and forth. Which raises this question: why is this a Rorschach situation? Why is it that (i) a young black woman, well-educated and professional, who says she’s never had so much as a speeding ticket, and (ii) the police (some of whom, including at least one officer on the scene and Chief Seabrooks, are themselves black), interpret the same facts so differently?

I’ll try to address this question in a future column. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Rorschach moments

  1. Pingback: Race: it’s everywhere (more on Fay Wells) | The Healthy City Local

  2. I am listening to the radio about the tragedy in San Bernardino. The police never know, when they respond to a call, what they will find. I am listening (in real time) to how the alleged gunman is shooting at the police as I type this. I do NOT fault the Santa Monica Police for having so many officers respond. Yes, it turned out to be a “nothing” matter in that the woman was lawfully in the unit, but it could so easily have been otherwise. As for the neighbor who called the police, I like Frank Gruber very much, but Frank, give me a break! Are you really suggesting that if I see some suspicious activity – like someone possibly breaking into a residential unit – I am supposed to ask the people what they are doing? No thank you! I don’t believe there is any police force in the country that would advise neighbors to investigate themselves instead of calling the police. I am – and have been my entire life – someone who seeks equality and justice and equal opportunities for all. I happen to be white. If I had seen what this neighbor saw, I would have called the police, and race would have had nothing to do with it. I would have called the police if I saw people possibly breaking into a unit, and it would not matter to me if they were white or green or purple because to me, suspicious activity is suspicious activity. And it sure as hell would appear to me to be suspicious to see people engaged in an activity which COULD be lock-picking. What is the big deal that the police showed up to investigate? I would be HAPPY to have established my bona fides if I had been in this woman’s situation, and I would have been GRATEFUL to the concerned neighbor and GRATEFUL to the police. I am disgusted by this woman and her accusations of racism and her personal attack on her neighbor. This woman will have to live with her conscience if somewhere down the road another person sees this scenario and hesitates to call the police and a woman ends up raped or someone ends up murdered. I fear that people will hesitate to call the police if they see something suspicious lest they end up being the target of hate in the way the neighbor in this situation has been mocked and called racist. God help is all. The actions of this woman has caused us to be afraid to call the police when we see suspicious activities. Neighborhood “eyes” are important to prevent crimes, and this woman’s publicity seeking conduct has had a chilling effect on neighbor involvement.

  3. We all need to stop and consider that our reaction to any stressful situation, particularly one in which police officers draw guns, is colored by our culture and our experience. I recently listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates read his book, “Between the World and Me”, on an audiobook download. Mr. Coates draws us into the world in which a college graduate and successful writer has learned through direct experience to react to police with the expectation of getting killed by them. Even if the police officers or the Chief are themselves African-American, their role in society means that it would be illogical for an African-American to expect to survive an encounter with police officers who have drawn their guns. I respectfully ask everyone who doubts the authenticity of Ms. Wells’ reaction, and her continued trauma, to read “Between the World and Me”.

    White privilege is real, and we white people don’t get to say that it isn’t. White privilege means that police officers kill black people all the time. I would be surprised if Ms. Wells were not severely traumatized, and when I listened to the recording, I thought she made a great deal of sense, and controlled her temper much more than I expected.

    • Abby — I think you just wrote a substantial part of my next column. And her demeanor was a big part of why I wanted readers to listen to the whole 47 minutes. I could never have been that calm and collected. But than as white, it would have been okay for me to be outraged.

  4. Everyone reading this is invited and welcome to attend the next monthly workshop of the Committee for Racial Justice where we deal with these issues on an ongoing basis. Dec 6, form 6 – 8:30 (first half hour is potluck supper) in the Thelma Terry Building in Virginia Ave Park. Join us for more discussion with the community and with others involved in similar situations.

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