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.