Wells, left, by Kyle Monk/Washington Post and Seabrooks.
I'm glad that Santa Monica can afford to dispatch 19 officers to a call of a residential burglary going down, I'm just surprised. But that's not why this burglary — which didn't really happen — is in the news.
Fay Wells, a Santa Monica renter and vice president who is a black woman, is pretty upset that the police showed up in such force at her apartment, where a 911 call said a burglary was occurring. They arrived with guns drawn and a police dog, demanded she come out with her hands up, and it took awhile to sort out that she was the resident, not one of the Latino suspects reported by a neighbor. She wrote about first-person in the Washington Post on Wednesday. Sample:
I said it was only me and, hands still raised, slowly descended the stairs, focused on one officer’s eyes and on his pistol. I had never looked down the barrel of a gun or at the face of a man with a loaded weapon pointed at me. In his eyes, I saw fear and anger. I had no idea what was happening, but I saw how it would end: I would be dead in the stairwell outside my apartment, because something about me — a 5-foot-7, 125-pound black woman — frightened this man with a gun. I sat down, trying to look even less threatening, trying to de-escalate. I again asked what was going on. I confirmed there were no pets or people inside.
I told the officers I didn’t want them in my apartment. I said they had no right to be there. They entered anyway. One pulled me, hands behind my back, out to the street. The neighbors were watching. Only then did I notice the ocean of officers. I counted 16. They still hadn’t told me why they’d come.
Later, I learned that the Santa Monica Police Department had dispatched 19 officers after one of my neighbors reported a burglary at my apartment. It didn’t matter that I told the cops I’d lived there for seven months, told them about the locksmith, offered to show a receipt for his services and my ID. It didn’t matter that I went to Duke, that I have an MBA from Dartmouth, that I’m a vice president of strategy at a multinational corporation. It didn’t matter that I’ve never had so much as a speeding ticket. It didn’t matter that I calmly, continually asked them what was happening. It also didn’t matter that I didn’t match the description of the person they were looking for — my neighbor described me as Hispanic when he called 911. What mattered was that I was a woman of color trying to get into her apartment — in an almost entirely white apartment complex in a mostly white city — and a white man who lived in another building called the cops because he’d never seen me before.
After the officers and dog exited my “cleared” apartment, I was allowed back inside to speak with some of them. They asked me why I hadn’t come outside shouting, “I live here.” I told them it didn’t make sense to walk out of my own apartment proclaiming my residence when I didn’t even know what was going on. I also reminded them that they had guns pointed at me. Shouting at anyone with a gun doesn’t seem like a wise decision.
I had so many questions. Why hadn’t they announced themselves? Why had they pointed guns at me? Why had they refused to answer when I asked repeatedly what was going on? Was it protocol to send more than a dozen cops to a suspected burglary? Why hadn’t anyone asked for my ID or accepted it, especially after I’d offered it? If I hadn’t heard the dog, would I have opened the door to a gun in my face? “Maybe,” they answered.
The Santa Monica PD has been evasive to her and the Post about answering her questions, but after the media began reporting on Wells' opinion piece, police chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks responded with a statement that invokes her own experience as a black woman from South LA who is also a top cop. Here's the whole thing, and a sample below.
When the scene was stabilized and the officers learned that Ms. Wells was, in fact, the apartment resident, two police supervisors and two police officers, including the K-9 handler, spent considerable time explaining what brought the police to Ms. Wells’ door. We were making an effort to help her understand what happened. Even the neighbor who called 9-1-1 came over and tried to explain why he called. Unfortunately, none of these efforts worked.
As a Black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how this experience has made her feel. On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response. This seeming dichotomy may be difficult for some to accept, particularly given the national dialogue. From my perspective, the 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary. Put yourself in his place. Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes. I have chosen to share the post-incident audio recording so you can listen and draw your own conclusions…
This incident is reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink, the image of an old woman, or you see the beautiful woman’s profile. Some will see this circumstance as an indictment of law enforcement while others will see it as further proof of the breakdown in police-community relations. For me, I don’t see this incident as either of those things. Instead, this incident presents a clear and present opportunity for all facets of our community and this Police Department to continue to work together, to engage in on-going conversations about the realities and myths of the protective function inherent in policing, and to emphasize the importance of community, particularly in terms of knowing one’s neighbors. I hope we can all to be more thoughtful before we rush to condemn the actions of a group of police officers who were doing their best to keep our community safe. I welcome the opportunity to engage our community in these all- important conversations.
Seabrooks also released the a police recording of the incident to make her case. (Sorry, not the 911 call.)