My Spinning Head
I have been following the consent search (or Driving While Black) issue over the past fifteen or so months. The contention by some is that since roughly three times as many black citizens undergo consent searches as white citizens, racial profiling is being practiced by the Fayetteville Police Department. As the public tension surrounding this matter has escalated, I have given it even more intense thought. Now comes the police stop of Commissioner Charles Evans who is black. I admit speculating as to how those pursuing termination of consent searches would react to the Evans’ incident. My expectation was that it would be spun by those who oppose consent searches, including the Fayetteville Observer newspaper, in the best possible light for the Commissioner. In spite of that expectation, my head is spinning after reading Myron Pitts’ column in Sunday’s (1/15/2012) Observer. The headline is “Traffic stop shows why cameras are needed.” As was done in an Observer article written by Andrew Barksdale (1/14/2012), Pitts recounts the flow of events as shown in a video, which includes audio, from a camera in the officer’s patrol car. Barksdale’s 1/14 article is based on his viewing the video. Before the video was released, Barksdale also did an article on 1/12 that initially reported this police stop. Here is some pertinent information from Barksdale’s articles and Pitts’ column: 1. Evans was stopped after pulling in front of a Fayetteville police officer on Robeson Street. The officer had run the Commissioner’s license plate through the Department of Motor Vehicles’ (DMV) database. Each of his three attempts resulted in a message saying the tag was to be confiscated. The officer removed the tag. (The following day it was determined that the confiscation notice was posted in error.)2. Evans said he became concerned because he had no reason to believe there was a problem with his tag. 3. On a call taken by a police dispatcher, Evans demanded to speak to a desk sergeant. Barksdale’s 14 January article quotes Evans as saying, “I have a police officer here who has harassed me, and I need a desk sergeant here.” A sergeant went to the stop location where he spoke with Commissioner Evans and the on-scene officer. With the officer, the sergeant looked at the DMV notice. While in a patrol car looking at the DMV data, the sergeant advises the officer that they are dealing with a City councilman. He was referring to Commissioner Evans having served on the Fayetteville City Council.4. Barksdale’s article (1/14) reported that Gavin MacRoberts, a police spokesman, said (Barkdsdale’s words): “…the coding, which came from DMV, was not familiar to Rashad, who decided to err on the side of caution and return the plate to Evans. As a result, the citation Ford had written was voided at the scene.” (Rashad is the sergeant who went to the scene and Ford is the officer who made the stop.) 5. Following are some noteworthy quotes from Evans and Ford along with other considerations, all from the Barksdale articles: a 1/12: Evans said the officer stopped him as he was pulling out of a convenience store along Roberson Street about 8:30 p.m. Evans said the officer told him his license plate was expired, fictitious or a renter’s tag. 1/14: On Friday Evans said he felt harassed when Ford refused to acknowledge his registration and ignored him when he asked why his plate was being removed. 1/14: In the video, Ford says that Evans kept interrupting him. “Every time I tried to explain what was going on, you cut me off and you were kind of belligerent,” Ford says. 1/14: Ford tells him he does not know why the plate was flagged. He said he ran Evans’ tags three times through the DMV database and the plate was flagged as needing to be picked up. b 1/14: The officer addresses Evans as “sir” and says “OK” or nothing at all when Evans interrupts him or refuses to answer some questions. c 1/14: “Let me finish,” Ford said at one point. “You are starting to get me upset.” d 1/14: Evans refuses to sign a citation for driving with a revoked license plate. Ford tells him the court date. “You have to be there,” Ford said. “No, I don’t,” Evans replied. “OK,” Ford said. “Because this is going to get settled tonight, trust me,” Evans replied. e 1/14: In the video, the traffic stop ends on a conciliatory tone. “I do want to apologize for my behavior, because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong and I felt like I was being harassed,” Evans told the officers. 6. Even against the backdrop of knowing all that I recounted above, Myron Pitts nears the end of his column and writes, “Neither Evans nor Ford acted way out of bounds.” He then suggests maybe there should have been “… a little less attitude on Evans’ part,” “…a little better judgment on Ford’s part,” and “Maybe a little more listening on both sides.” My thinking regarding this Evans’ incident and how it relates to the larger issue of consent searches or Driving While Black is further influenced by hearing Commissioner Evans on radio the day after his police stop. His tone was one of outrage and he gave the account in a way that would certainly contribute to distrust of the Fayetteville Police Department by any person already so inclined. I heard nothing by way of him accepting any responsibility for what we now know to be his, I believe, unacceptable conduct that night. The discussion focused on filing a complaint with the Police Department and possibly getting a lawyer. So, with all of this in my head, I pick up the Sunday paper and read Myron Pitts’ column. It is almost a week later as I get back to working on this opinion piece and my head is still spinning. I simply cannot reason my way through to question the judgment of this officer who stopped Commissioner Evans and I definitely cannot bring myself to see Commissioner Evans’ actions as not being “way out of bounds.” Then there are other considerations that trouble me. One is what message is being received by the men and women of the Fayetteville Police Department who put their lives on the line everyday to protect the citizens of this City? It does not matter that Pitts would probably contend he does not intend to undermine effective crime control in this City. I believe that will be the end result of treating an incident of this nature in the way he treated it. That is, minimizing the unacceptable actions of Commission Evans while finding a way to assign some blame to an officer who I contend the video shows was simply trying to do his job. In a time when distrust of our police department is being fed daily by various media outlets and word of mouth, I find it impossible to believe that we can avoid creating an atmosphere where officers hesitate to do what they know should be done during traffic stops or other police related situations. I expect this messaging situation will be further complicated by how Fayetteville goes about selecting the next police chief. Most likely we will end up with public meetings where citizens give input. The concerns of various groups will be put forth. However, in our world where the “common good” is no longer relevant, each group will only be concerned about what is good for their group. I expect this will result in the selection of a chief who will run between these competing groups trying to keep everybody happy and those officers who are dedicated to protecting us, who put their lives on the line, receive another increment of the same message. That is, “always err on the side of caution.” The meaning is do not risk being accused of racial profiling, of harassing anybody, or causing any group to be upset by your actions. There is no doubt in my mind that this approach will result in increased criminal activity that will also upset citizens of this City. In the end, what we need is a solution to the consent search issue that allows the citizens and our police department to win. Now that I reflect on all that I have written here, the thought occurs to me that maybe, no matter what they do, there is no win on the horizon for the Fayetteville Police Department. Consequently, all of us might lose.