The intertoobz are ablaze with the story of a group of University of Virginia coeds who were surrounded by police who mistook their bottled water for illegally purchases beer. The major media sources….not so much.
As it is being reported, the girls exited a grocery store with a carton of bottled water, which nearby Alcoholic Beverage Control agents mistook for a twelver. OK, it’s dark, mistakes happen, and presumably ABC agents were there because they suspected after hours sales were going on at the store. I can live with that.
But here’s how it went down, as confirmed by the local D.A., who classified the girls’ statement as “factually consistent.” The agents–it’s night, remember–ran towards her car, in plainclothes, weapons drawn, and one jumped up on the hood of her car. Oh, yeah, they also had their ID badges out; can’t imagine how the girls might have missed that. In the driver’s words:
“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she remembered Thursday in a written account of the April 11 incident. “I couldn’t put my windows down unless I started my car, and when I started my car they began yelling to not move the car, not to start the car. They began trying to break the windows. My roommates and I were … terrified,”
Like any sensible college student who has armed men in street clothes jumping on her hood and trying to break her windows, she drove off. Like any non-sensible police agency, they charged her with two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police.
Come on, have the police really not learned by now that when they run at people in the dark out of uniform with their guns drawn, that any reasonable person is not going to assume it’s the police, but that they’re being assaulted. Wait, at this point perhaps any reasonable person ought to assume it’s just the police being fucking morons as usual.
Fortunately the local D.A. (technically, it being wacky ol’ Virginia, the Commonwealth’s Attorney), realized the police were just being fucking morons as usual and dropped the charges. Or maybe he just realized that white coeds who’d just returned from a Take Back the Night event and were buying bottled water for a sorority fundraiser might be pretty sympathetic defendants.
This paramilitary bullshit needs to stop, and it needs to stop yesterday. Assume the girls did illegally buy a carton of beer. Would a carton of beer justify that kind of response, instead of walking up to them quietly, with the badge held out more clearly than the gun, and asking to talk to them? The police seem to have developed this weird idea that they need to terrorize everybody into abject submission to prevent dangerous situations, and seem incapable of recognizing that this response tends to exacerbate danger, both to the suspects and themselves, by putting everyone–themselves as well as the suspects–into an emotionally frenzied state. When people are yelling and screaming, bad shit happens. When people are talking quietly, bad shit is less likely to happen.
I had a similarly stupid, although fortunately less dramatic, encounter with a policeman once in my hometown, a flyspeck farm town in Indiana. Being an insomniac, one night when I was back home visiting I got up and took a walk well after midnight, around 2 a.m. if I remember correctly. I passed a house where a guy was leaving his house and getting into his pickup truck, and he gave me a long look. It made me slightly uncomfortable, but, hey, it is weird to see a guy roaming those streets that late at night, so I didn’t make much of it. I turned down the next street and kept walking, and the pickup caught up with me and rolled slowly by, which was a bit creepy. Then it pulled into the parking lot of the Catholic school, dead center in the middle of the lot, where there was no illumination from the street lights, and as I walked by on the sidewalk, really nervous now, the guy opened his door and said, “Hey, come here.” I kept moving, not slowing down and trying not to give away my nervousness by speeding up. After I passed he drove out of the parking lot and pulled up to the curb right before me, which made me stop and made my fight or flight reflex go up to 11. Then he showed me his badge. As the adrenalin began to drain from my body, he said accusingly, “Why didn’t you come over when I called you back there?”
Seriously? A younger guy in street clothes, in a private vehicle, in the middle of the night, in an unlit parking lot, and he can’t understand why I didn’t obey his order? Fortunately I was too smart to give the response he deserved.
As lousy as this all is, you know why my headline is wrong? Because those girls and I are surprised when it happens to us. Or at least I used to be–it’s a lot harder to be surprised, these days.