So apparently my son was detained by the police last week.
My son is 21 years old. He lives with my oldest son in a small farm town of 300 people where he’s lived in his entire life. Everyone knows everyone there. My oldest son goes to college in a nearby city, and my younger son, the 21 year old, is working and saving money to go to school. They split the rent on a small house. Both very decent, well behaved kids. Neither one of them ever gave me a moment of real trouble. Sometimes they didn’t wanna do the dishes or mow the lawn, that kind of thing. Minor. I’m a lucky mom.
One of the things my son loves to do is go for walks. He’s done it ever since he was a little kid. He puts in some earbuds and walks around town for a while pretty much every night, or he rides his unicycle. (yes, he rides a unicycle. thug life.) It’s just his thing. Goes out for a while, gets some air, and then comes home. It’s good exercise.
So a couple days before Christmas, he was going for a walk, and it was dark, because, winter. He’s a big kid, 6 feet tall, 200 lbs, and he’s in one of those phases that kids go through, where he decided to grow his hair out long. He was wearing a hoodie because it was winter. He felt that although the weather was cold, he didn’t need a heavier coat. He walks fast and he gets too hot in a heavy coat. Basically, he was doing the exact same thing he does every night after work or school. Same as any other day.
Out of nowhere, barely out of shouting distance of the house, he’s stopped by the police. At first he didn’t hear them since he had his earbuds in and so they were a bit worked up right from the start. But finally they get his attention. They’re looking for somebody, they say. Somebody that looks kinda like him. Where’s his ID? Well, he didn’t bring his ID because he was just going for a walk. Oh. Hmm. A walk. Well. That’s kind of odd. You’re really not dressed for this cold weather, are you? I think we’re going to have to keep you here until we can find out who you are.
I am going to pause here to thank Zeus, Buddha, and little Baby Jesus that my son is a relatively mellow and polite guy. When my husband heard this story, he had the reaction that I think about 70% of all males would (rightfully) have, which is “they wouldn’t have been keeping me there!” I think many, many guys, particularly 21 year olds engaged in a totally innocent pursuit that they’ve done daily since they were small children, peacefully walking a half-block away from their house listening to some tunes, would have become argumentative, even belligerent in this situation. And sadly, we know the way that story ends far, far too often.
But thankfully, my son was chill about it and even more thankfully, my older son was home when the police knocked on the door. (even more thankfully because I suspect that had the detainment stretched on much longer, Son#2’s patience would have dried up). They asked, “Do you know someone named XYZ?” at which point Son #1 proceeded to have 7 heart attacks thinking his little brother had been run over or arrested. “Does he live here?” Son 1 answered in the affirmative and then the cop, without any explanation whatsoever, barked “He’s legit!” into his shoulder radio and turned and walked off into the night leaving my older son wondering if he had just stepped into a very odd episode of 24 or something.
I am of two minds about this chain of events.
On the one hand, clearly, if there is a criminal running around a small town, the police should be able to investigate that. That is what we want them to do, right? No one wants a creep lurking in the neighborhood. I certainly wouldn’t want my son going out for his nightly stroll and encountering said creep. Furthermore, I admit that my son’s size and appearance were threatening/suspicious and worthy of a closer look. I admit it was dark and cold and my son was lightly dressed. It was probably just sensible that the cops should ask him a couple of questions in that scenario. I do not fault the individual officers in any way for doing their jobs to protect our community.
It’s the greater context that is so concerning. It’s the demand for “papers please” and their immediate suspicion and hostility and the condescending tone that the police seem to take whenever they interact with people. It’s that feeling that we’re being policed not by a friendly neighborhood cop on the beat who knows his community, who is supposed to be there and who is not, but by paramilitary strangers who seem willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Men, and even sometimes women and children, cannot peacefully walk around their own neighborhoods without risking a confrontation with cops. But I know it’s a small risk, a slim chance, and I also know that police have millions of peaceful interactions with civilians every day. I know that rationally, logically – but my heart and gut still feels like we just dodged a bullet, and I don’t mean a figurative one.
Ten years ago, in the city where my oldest son goes to college, a developmentally disabled man named Otto Zehm walked to the bank near his house, got some money from the ATM machine, and went to the nearest convenience store to buy a pop and a Snickers bar. Somebody thought he’d been trying to steal money from the ATM and called it in. An officer came at him from behind in the convenience store, without giving him any time to react, and knocked him to the ground with a baton roughly 15 seconds after entering the building. Zehm was tasered about 30 seconds after the police officer entered the store. He was hit a total of 7 times with a baton, then he was hogtied, put onto his stomach, and left that way for more than 16 minutes. A non-rebreather mask not hooked up to oxygen was put over his face, and within 3 minutes, he stopped breathing. By the time he got to the hospital he was brain dead. He died two days later. The officer in question was found fully in the wrong and sentenced to 4 years in prison. (I mention that solely to demonstrate that this was not one of those gray-zone cases.)
Otto Zehm’s last words were “All I wanted was a Snickers bar.” Just a guy out walking around, minding his beeswax. For the last time.
We all have close calls every day. Our car slips on the ice but we recover. Our bodies are able to fight off a nasty germ. We take an aspirin and dissolve a blood clot we didn’t even know was forming. A bad guy passes by in the streets without noticing us. Risking death is an inevitable, unavoidable part of life. But as a mom you like to think that you can let your responsible, clean and sober, grown-ass adult kid walk a block from your house without inadvertently stumbling his way into a potentially fatal police confrontation. If it happened to Otto Zehm, it could have happened to my son.
Being a police officer has got to be very far from easy. I cannot imagine putting on a gun every day and knowing that I am going out into a world full of people who very well may try and kill me. I can’t imagine the psychic toll that takes on a person. But it is obvious we are putting our officers into situations that are too much for them, asking them to carry too heavy a burden, requiring them to enforce too many laws with inadequate training. Some of the laws we expect them to enforce fairly and justly, are quite frankly unenforceable without a police state. They operate under a bureaucratic structure that almost seems tailor-made to encourage corruption and abuse of power. And yet so many of them are good, and want to do good.
I fully stand with police officers, but something has got to change here. We’re putting our finest men and women, brave officers who want nothing more than to help our country and their communities, into situations where it’s too easy for them to make mistakes. The system is setting our police officers up to fail, and then blaming it on them when it happens. I think it does something to them. I think it makes them see a potential enemy in every citizen. And I think it makes the citizens immediately take a position of hostility, of distrust. I think it makes the police too quick to use threat and force when a friendly tone and a polite question might do, and it makes the people too quick to argue and be disrespectful. Everything escalates too easily. On both sides.
Can we please just fix the system instead of waiting until things go wrong and holding individual officers accountable?