The ritual of saying the names of victims of police violence is not exactly comforting, but it is necessary. This most recent incident in Atlanta happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this, and more details will likely emerge as the investigation continues. A fact we do know is that the situation was not successfully de-escalated. A man fell asleep in his car at a fast-food drive thru and ended up dead. There’s something very wrong with that story, and it’s not the first part.
Atlanta Police chief Erika Shields will be re-assigned as Mayor Bottoms looks for new leadership. As this incident gains national attention, the question that presents itself is whether the Atlanta Police Department is really troubled or whether this is an isolated incident. While others will cite prior history to answer this question, I choose to answer for myself on a personal, anecdotal level. The officers I’ve encountered are terrible.
The main incident I want to relate is one that happened to my partner, who is black, about four years ago on July 4 (insert irony here). The two of us were involved in a low-speed collision less than a block away from our house in the Washington Park neighborhood near downtown Atlanta. A car pulled directly out into the street from a side street without stopping, and my partner didn’t brake in time to avoid a fender-bender. He called the police to document the accident, and the entire incident was turned around on him.
First, the responding officer actually made the statement that my partner, as a driver on the main street with the right-of-way, was responsible for slowing down when approaching unmarked intersections to make sure no one comes flying out illegally.
Second, the officer ran my partner’s ID and ending up arresting him and placing him in jail, where he stayed until I was able to bail him out early next morning. The reason he was handcuffed and led off to jail? He had missed a court date three years earlier; the notice for the court date was sent to our old street address and he never received it. This missed court date was a continuance of an earlier court date, which we attended; the matter could have easily been resolved at that time.
The reason for the initial court date? In 2012, another inept driver ran a red light and T-boned us in an intersection. That responding officer (also APD) made the decision to cite both drivers, which is to say my partner received a ticket for being in the path of a car that ran a red light.
Of course, I can’t prove race had anything to do with either situation. However, the officers in both situations had discretion and in both cases used that discretion to create more work for themselves and more headaches for the members of the public they were supposed to “protect and serve.” Nobody’s safety or protection was enhanced by locking up a man for missing a court date for a traffic accident. Even if it’s protocol, it’s a foolish protocol, devoid of context and common sense. It seemed suspiciously like a technicality to meet a quota, but that’s just speculation. Even so, I, as a white man, have been stopped by police several times in my life and have managed to leave each interaction with my freedom.
Overt police brutality receives and deserves attention. But there’s also situations like Mr. Brooks’ where a shoot-first police mentality takes hold and then takes parents away from their children. And then there’s cases like my partner’s arrest, where we (we being all the cogs supporting the American justice system) are depriving people of options and opportunities in little, bite-sized pieces. Frivolous arrests lead to criminal records, which lead to fewer job opportunities, acclimatization to the jail system, and for some, a sense of inevitability and hopelessness. I’ve overheard young black men in public discussing going to jail like it was a trip to the grocery store–just part of life’s routine. Every now and again, you get picked up and taken there.
My personal experience of the APD’s incompetence doesn’t end there. In 2016, I was stopped by Atlanta’s best while walking from the MARTA transit station to my home. I had a laptop bag slung over my shoulder, but my appearance was otherwise unremarkable. It was around 10 or 11pm. The police intimidated me by directing the blinding spotlight of their squad car over to me, and then asking me to stop. The officers detained me. One asked me where I was going, smirked condescendingly when I said I was walking home, then asked for my ID. Since the ID had my address on it, proving I lived two blocks away, I was happy to oblige in order to wipe the smirk off his face. He also implied that I was lying by stating he hadn’t seen me in the neighborhood before. This statement was patently ridiculous; I had been walking back and forth from the Ashby train station daily for three years, so he was clearly not in any position to opine on how often anyone was in the neighborhood.
Clearly unhappy that he hadn’t caught me in a lie he could escalate and use against me, he told me to “be safe” while driving off in the direction of my house. Of course, if my personal safety had really been his concern in stopping me, he could have offered me a ride the rest of the way. He didn’t. I walked home alone in the dark.
The whole incident was complete BS. I give people the benefit of the doubt, but there was none to be had there. I don’t know if they were fishing to meet their quota, just wanted to flaunt their power, or if they assumed that a white person in the neighborhood (which is predominately black) was there to buy drugs. Based on the reflexive incredulity that I was met with, I assumed the last.
So, the APD, in my experience, sucks. I think an overhaul is needed. Overpolicing and inept communication with the citizens in the community, even without the racial angle, appears to be a problem.
But hear me on this: race, even when it’s not the fundamental issue, still becomes an issue in the context of the broken justice system and in the context of systemic racism. Bad policing has a disproportionate impact on black people.
Even my personal experience, as infuriating as it was, was never a life-or-death situation. The officers did not perceive me as a threat. I didn’t have any issue going into my pocket to fish my ID out of my wallet. As a white man, I didn’t even consider that such an action could be dangerous. The police may have even targeted me precisely because they thought I didn’t pose a risk to their bullying tactics.
I hope the APD can turn the page and do better. This is the right social moment to make that change.