Running While Black

The following comes from Rob Collins, who was a student in one of my classes last year. He's quite youthful looking. He's also a student leader, and an important participant in the life of the school. He sent it to me originally as an email, then allowed me to post it here:

For perspective on this, I have a short afro. Somebody else with a short afro, described to have been wearing different clothes than I was, allegedly committed a robbery near where I was at 9 am on Thursday morning, Dec 10, 2009. I was running to campus from a bookstore in a t-shirt and slacks with a book in my hand, and a Coral Gables Police Sergeant A. Escobar saw me and pulled his car in front of me. I stopped.

“Put your hands on the hood of the car.” Without moving, “What? Why?” Getting out of the car, “Put your god damn hands on the hood of the car.” As I did what he said, “Why? What's going on?” Approaching me, “Interlock your fingers.”

It went on; he swore at me some more, I did what he said… He handcuffed me and told me to lay across the hood of the car. Because I wouldn't put my face, forehead, nose, or cheeks on the hood of his car, he told me to 'stop resisting' and threatened me with violence.

Eventually he calmed down and the cuffs were taken off of me. I gave him my ID. He checked it out. He apologized. We all went home. However, I'm not likely to ever forget laying across the hood of a police car in handcuffs while being sworn at and threatened. I hope it never happens to you. And so…

Hello Sergeant A. Escobar of the City of Coral Gables Police Department,

I hope you're well. When it's all said and done, my problem is only with the way you conducted yourself. I completely agree that I fit a description of some one who you were looking for and I was near the location in question and I was running in street clothes. That you wanted to stop me is not my problem.

When you stopped me, however, I was given a half second to comply with your having barked orders at me before you were swearing at me. Why? Because I was not IMMEDIATELY doing what you wanted? I had no idea what was going on. I must say that I'm not used to putting my hands on the hoods of police cars(never happened before, actually), so I think that I was understandably in a little shock. But instead of simply keeping things calm, you escalated.

So then you cuffed me. Because I did not want to press my own face against the hood of your car, you threatened me, telling me about some sort of general consequence of physical harm because I wouldn't “stop resisting.” If I hadn't done anything, you said, then there'd be no problem; do you think that I'm going to put my face, my actual nose and mouth, on the hood of your car and that having to do that would amount to “no problem”?

No problem for YOU, yeah. You're not the one being accosted. You're not the one handcuffed and pressed down on the hood of a police car, across the street from his own school being treated like a criminal. You're not the one with his friends and classmates driving by wondering what he did. You're suffering no humiliation, enduring no event that will stay with you for the rest of your life. You're the officer! In our interaction today, you were the offender. You were justified in STOPPING me, but your level of hostility toward a calm, completely responsive person only because he fits a description and is running is inexcusable.

Afterward, you spoke so much about de-escalation and safety, but believe me, I was not de-escalated or comforted by your swearing at me and subsequently threatening me. You spoke of always being able to safely go home to your daughters, but if I was on edge, your hostility definitely would've pushed me towardviolence, not away from it. Your hostility in response to my calm and respectful demeanor was wholly uncalled for, and if I was a criminal who wasn't already riled up by having been caught stealing, your swearing at me and threatening me in response to my serenity would have been what pushed me to aggression.

You and your colleague, whose name I did not get, were remarkably angered just because I wanted answers. When I was upset (but still not hostile), your colleague had the brilliant thought that yelling at me to sit down would help me relax (thankfully, other officer calmly requested that I sit down while it got sorted out, to which I responded immediately and peacefully).

Hello? Does it usually work to calm people down by yelling commands at them?

You interpreted being articulate as being defiant. You interpreted wanting to know what was happening as fighting back.

There was no escalation, no potential for violence, no raised voices, until you two kept making it that way, until you were the one making the situation hostile. Escalating situations = police work? Playback the situation in your head – which of us did all the yelling?

I understand that you were taking actions that you thought resembled doing your job, but remind yourself of the circumstances: When you pulled your car in front of me, did I turn to run? No. When you barked at me to put my hands on your hood, did I make sudden movements? No. Did I approach your car door in anger? Did I approach your door at all? No and no. Did I raise my voice? No.

I remind you that a big part of your job is dealing with people. Every person is different, and subsequently, every situation is different. To not recognize that and always go with the guns blazing attitude will encourage conflict, as a rule of thumb. People who are on edge will start assuming that police presence instantly and always equals confrontation. You will not have the chance to bark any commands. Criminals won't give you the chance. If everyone expects that police will be unreasonable and belligerent, those who do not fear you will never comply. The situation will always go south because people will assume that officers are always out for blood.

If you're thinking that, in terms of your safety, criminals already don't give you a chance, then I guess by stopping and talking to you I made it pretty clear that I at least wasn't a threat, right off the bat. There was no flight risk; I stopped for you immediately. Even if there was, given the police officers who appeared on the scene within minutes, it's clear that I would've been easily apprehended, running along the largely clear Ponce de Leon Boulevard. But we needn't even worry about that because I stopped for you. My prize for stopping for you and talking clearly to you? Verbal abuse and threats.

We're not in a police state; people deserve YOUR RESPECT (that'd still be true even if we were in a police state, you would just have even more authority). I wish to make more clear that, had the circumstances been different, I might have justifiably appeared to be a threat to you, in that moment. But I completely disagree that any of my actions today warranted your over-the-top behavior toward me. If I'm calm, be calm back. If I'm crazy enough to use a weapon against you, swearing and threatening me when I'm calmly talking to you isn't going to make me feel less aggressive.

I also remind you that if you threaten me, acting as an officer, you do so as a representative of the POLICE. Another officer who appeared on the scene wondered if I was just mad because you swore at me. I was angered by your entire attitude and behavior, but even if it was just the swearing that made me mad, well, is it okay for cops to swear at people who haven't done anything? Save that language and disrespect for the people who treat you with disrespect.

Please don't do more than you really need to when you encounter somebody.

If you think being calm and wondering what is going on are good reasons to be sworn at, threatened, handcuffed, and held down on the hood of a car, I'm guessing that those things haven't happened to you yet.

I think it's important to note how different the case described is above from the one described in UM Cops Pull Guns on Student on His First Day where the student was white but the clothes matched and the student himself said “the resemblance was uncannily close”.

Here the clothes didn't match, but even so the circumstances of running with a book and the location were enough for the police to do a stop. The issue is how the stop is conducted. We know policing is dangerous. There are a lot of guns out there. But there are also a lot of innocent citizens. And they deserve to be treated with some respect.

If the facts are accurately presented above, and knowing Mr. Collins as I do I am inclined to believe him, then I think at the very least some remedial police training may be in order here. And maybe some anger management counseling too? Or a recuperative spell at desk somewhere…

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16 Responses to Running While Black

  1. Vic says:

    Hello Rob Collins. It is really too bad that you were treated this way, but you know what? You survived it, and as tramatic as it might have been, it hasn’t REALLY scared you for life, though it may seem that way now – that is, unless you LET it scar you, in which case you’ve done the real harm, not Sgt Escobar.

    But you should consider for a moment what Sgt. Escobar goes through EVERY DAY. He knows that EVERY time he stops anyone, might be his last moment on Earth. He knows that the reality of the situation is that 99 people out of 100 will do him no harm at all, and those that might actually try to kill him are an infinitesimally small number. But he has no idea who these people are at any given moment, society tells him not to assume. So he has to work cautiously and learn by experience.

    The suspect he was pursuing was wanted for robbery. As you know from law school, robbery involves taking something by threat or force, often with a weapon. he did not stop you this way because he pulled you over for speeding. he did not stop you this way because he thought you were suspicious, for some racist reason. He stopped you because he thought you might be a robbery suspect – perhaps known to be armed. If you WERE that suspect, and he wasn’t overly cautious, to the point of being aggressive, he might not he home with his family and friends right now, as you are with yours.

    One might note here that the other incident Michael notes where the suspect was white, was not a robbery, but theft, and there was far less possibility that the suspect was armed (thieves are not generally armed, which is why they steal by theft, rather than robbery).

    Imagine, Rob, if you will, a job where each day you kiss your wife and head off to work could be your last. Imagine how scary that is (I know – and it IS scary). Imagine how much stress you carry around (a lot). Imagine how being stressed and scared every time you confront a suspect, while alone, can make you act, or overreact. Not many people are even willing to do that job, much less can do it for years with no affect on them. That officer takes his life in his hands every day for far less than you will earn as a first year associate with lots of respect and no real risk of personal harm. And if you are ever the robbery victim, I’m sure you’ll expect Sgt. Escobar, or one of his colleagues, to drop everything and find the guy before he robs someone else, which is all he was doing.

    This is not to justify ANYTHING the officer did, but I think you might devote a few moments of your public indignation to consider HIS side of the situation. And if this is the worst thing that every happens to you in life, you are way ahead of most of us. I’m sorry you feel bad, but I hope you get over it and maybe do something positive to make a change.

  2. michael says:

    I don’t think the police should be cursing out citizens no matter what. It is sad to see that even this is controversial in these modern times.

  3. Vic says:

    I agree Michael. I really do. But the world is just not that simple.

    Being aggressive, even overly aggressive, is what can save your life. Most of the time, the people police confront are essentially harmless. But for those on the edge, intimidation – intimidation that would piss you off – has the effect of causing a bad guy, about to do something stupid, to choose wisely.

    This cop was looking for a robbery suspect. He may have KNOWN that the actual robber would be armed. As I said, I don’t apologize for Sgt. Escobedo, not justify what he did – that’s for HIM to do, I only point out that he is operating on a level that is foreign to you, and just as you expect him to be more sensitive to you, you should be more sensitive to his world.

    This was barely a speedbump on Mr. Collins’ life. Let’s just hope that the REAL guy, when and if found, does no REAL harm to the officers that apprehend him.

  4. michael says:

    I think you are failing to grasp that this was a little more than “a speedbump” in someone’s life. There is a great deal of racial profiling going on out there.

    Last July a New York Times/CBS News poll asked: “Have you ever felt you were stopped by the police just because of your race or ethnic background?”

    White men: 9% yes.
    Black men: 66% yes.

    This is not just something that hits young men. I know a successful local lawyer who is black and drives a nice car and complains bitterly that the police stop him often, he believes because they find it odd to see a black man in a nice car. (I don’t know how he drives, though.)

    If I were a black professional, or proto-professional, who had just been stopped — and cursed and manhandled — by cops for the first time, I think I’d be pretty shook up since the statistics suggest this will not be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    In contrast, if it happened to me — a white professional — I’d be pretty shook up, but I would think of it as a once-in-a-life-time event and it would be a lot easier to get over.

  5. Rob says:

    Hey Vic, hope you’re well.

    Gotta say that I’m not worried that he stopped me; I’m disturbed by the manner in which he did it. Honestly, I don’t expect you to really understand unless you’ve been through it. And not just the act itself, but the act against a backdrop of a lifetime and a 400+ year legacy of being discriminated against. The act with the knowledge in your head that, 75 years ago, as a Black man in the exact same situation and location, I could’ve been shot dead and my family would’ve had no recourse because of what you’re talking about, that the officer was just doing his job.

    Maybe you have had an experience like mine that you were able to brush off. I’m sorry, first of all, if you have. But even so, your experience is still not mine. Your demand for respect is clearly not the same as mine. You obviously don’t think being accosted in the name of the law warrants an apology when it goes overboard.

    Well, I do.

    And if I picture myself as the robbery victim, I want the police to investigate, of course! But I don’t want them to unduly demean any one without a real explanation or apology.

    Like I said, I hope that you’re never handcuffed and held down on the hood of a car while being sworn at and threatened. But unless that happens to you, while you replay civil rights newreels and Martin Luther King speeches in your head, I really don’t expect you to understand where I’m coming from.

    The “barely a speedbump” remark makes me think that this hasn’t happened to you. I’m likely to never forget this as long as I live. Frankly, the “speedbump” remark is not for you to say.

    You talk about sensitivity to some one’s postion. I think your sensitivity for my position and that of other Black people in certain parts of this world is not rooted in an honesty about the closed doors, stares, remarks, underestimations, and denied opportunities that we face daily because of what we look like.

    I’ll recover; I’ll return to not looking over my shoulder when I hear a siren; I’ll happily roam the streets again, honestly feeling free. But I’d be ill-advised to forget this. It would not be healthy to lose sight of the constant plight of my (and your) brothers and sisters. We are all together. The pursuit of justice is the very reason I’m in law school. As long as some one is facing this, I’m invested in correcting it.

    And finally, I wholeheartedly disagree with the mere suggestion that “getting over it” is necessarily a part of making “positive change.” Not getting over this is as real a motivation as it gets for my making positive change.

    Ask anybody who knows me: I’m super optimistic and will not lose that. Things like this just give me an educated optimism. That is, I know what I’m up against, but it never the less does not get me down. Quite the opposite. I’m inspired to do positive work in a way that you wouldn’t believe, having gone through the bad stuff.

    But anyway, like I said, I’m not likely to forget it, even if I wanted to.

    And, at no fault of your own, you just don’t understand.

  6. So according to Vic, it is okay to trample on the rights of citizens because they have a dangerous job.

    Well Vic, they chose that job. The job pays well. It comes with healthy benefits. And almost unlimited power. Not to mention a lifelong pension.

    If they felt the job was too dangerous for them, they could have chosen another job.

    But Collins did not have a choice in this incident. He was going on about his business and next thing he knew, he was being threatened with violence.

    Anybody without a badge that does that will go to jail.

    I hate to say it, but it is the attitude of this cop that makes so many people resent and hate them, which increases the chances of them becoming victims themselves.

  7. Jerry says:

    What am I missing here? Black male, short afro commits a robbery in the same vicinity where a black male with a short afro is seen running. The clothing description is different [how different, we don't know] but Rob, the black male with a short afro seen running, gets stopped and treated like a suspect in a felony. Once it’s determined that he is not the suspect, the officer apologizes for holding him up.

    How is this racial profiling? How in God’s name does MLK even get mentioned in this discussion?

    If a while male with long hair commits a robbery and a while male with long hair is seen running away from the scene with different clothes, does anyone not think that guy is going to get stopped and questioned by police in the area?

    Okay, so the cop probably could have done his job without the swearing. But to make this a race thing is ridiculous. And it totally makes me wonder what else is being exaggerated about this incident.

  8. Eric says:

    It’s also worth mentioning that police officers, while certainly facing risks that most people don’t, are hardly alone in having dangerous jobs. Indeed, in 2007 (the most recent year for which there are complete data, see http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm#charts), police officers had only the 10th highest occupational fatality rate, behind commercial fishermen, loggers, aircraft pilots & engineers, structural iron & steel workers, farmers & ranchers, trash collectors, roofers, electrical power-linemen, and truck drivers, and just ahead of taxi drivers. The situation is similar for assaults, with several occupations (notably construction, transportation, and retail trades) experiencing more on-the-job assaults than police officers.

    What distinguishes cops from these other occupations isn’t a greater risk of being assaulted or killed. It is a greater power — to carry a gun and a badge, and to detain and arrest people. The risk doesn’t justify being an asshole — not for fishermen, pilots, or trash collectors, and not for cops either.

  9. wcw says:

    Funny thing, I was just looking up the on-the-job death rates. Cops face an indubitably high on-the-job death rate, around 16 per 100,000 in 2008 — see http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfoi_rates_2008hb.pdf

    The murder rate for black men in the US in 2008 was 15 per 100,000.

    Consider for a moment what any black man in the US goes through “EVERY DAY”, you innumerate twit.

  10. Vic says:

    No what distiguishes police from other dangerous professions is that UNLIKE any other professions (outside of military combat), the people around you won’t TRY to kill you. Death in most industries is an accident. Most police officer deaths occur in the line of duty.

    And no, they are NOT paid well with great bennies. I’m betting school teachers do better. Police officers can start in the $30K-40K range, with pretty standard bennies. Is that what YOUR life is worth? Would YOU do it for that? Do you really think that’s enough to make anybody think it’s such a goldmine that it’s worth the risk? Get real. Cops do what they do for a lot of reasons, but money is not one of them.

    And Rob, I’m sorry you feel the way you do, but this was not facially about race. Maybe it was an element undernieth, maybe not. I don’t know the officer in question (and neither do you), but you have given NO reason to believe this was racial profiling or a racially charged situation. Did he use any racially charged language? Or are you just presuming that any profanity he used with you he would not have used with an hispanic or white suspect?

    The fact that you don’t really believe you can get past this means that you’ve given up your peace of mind voluntarily to someone who wronged you. YOU did that, not him. He moved on and is likely not thinking a whole lot about you. In a week, you will barely be a memory. You can choose to let it affect the rest of you life, or just get on with things. Either way, the choice is yours, not his, and not society’s.

    I have been stopped and publically humiliated by the cops. Probably long before you were even born. And yes, it was disturbing. But I had done nothing and the rather beligerent officer let me go once it was determined that was true. I was also, at the time, in the military, sworn to protect and defend people just like this officer, yet he was treating me like garbage. I got over it quickly because I don’t believe in giving people that kind of power over me. Unfortunately, so many young African-American men have been so hypnotised by the race-baiters that “keep hope alive” that they can no longer see that their fate, the way they look at the world, and how the world looks at them, is largely in their hands, and not in the hands of their so-called “oppressors.”

    You have the world ahead of you and lots of joy and hearthbreak in your future. You can choose to allow this incident to beat you down, or not. One day, you’ll understand that.

    That’s all I’ll say about this. Good luck in law school. You sound like a thoughtful young man, which is what the law needs more of.

  11. nsk says:

    Rob,

    I remember meeting you during law school; I think you’re a bright guy. I’d respectfully note that your well-intentioned note is far, far too long for comprehension and response by a police officer.

    The Gables cops I’ve met are generally reasonable people, but their attention spans – much like most other Americans’ – are far shorter than those of us who learned to sit through law school classes. Your note might be better received if it were shorter in length.

    Naveed

  12. seek says:

    Rob,

    I am a recent grad newly minted FL attorney. I remember you well from law school. You should file a formal complaint against these officers. If you need help doing so I can help with the process.

    your pal – see k, Esq.

  13. Rob says:

    Carlos – good call, thank you.

    Jerry – I’m not accusing the officer of racial profiling, I am rather saying that my ethnicity is an inseverable part of my identity, because society has made it that way (when you ask your friends to describe people, how often is ethnicity a part of that, just naturally?). My interactions with the police are against a backdrop of who I am as a person and against the backdrop of our history as a people, so some considerations come in. It is naive to assume that race was certainly no factor in his attitude toward me just because didn’t HAVE to have been a factor.

    Eric – good call, thank you.

    wcw – good call, thank you.

    Vic – you’re right that the officer can’t currently help me put this behind me. He should, however, be held accountable for my having to deal with this at all. You’re wrong in thinking that my thinking about it is somehow depressing me, slowing me down, or detrimental to me in some way. Like “Rob, you must be worried. Listen to you; you’re worried!” and all this “get over it, just get over it!” I’m fine; I’m just thoughtful. This is a topic that I can go on and on about, because there is much work to be done. I’m not having nightmares or anything. Thanks for your concern, though.

    nsk – this letter is more for me and interested people who can spread the word than it is for the officer. I really just wanted to express myself. I could’ve made it two sentences and the officer still wouldn’t have responded, we both know that. As such, I’m much much much more interested in saying what I needed to say, no matter who read it, and I did that. Thanks for your concern, though.

    seek – thanks very much! I’ll hit you up.

  14. John Flood says:

    After Rob’s and seek’s last comments, I hope you follow this up Michael. Sounds like pretty crude racial profiling/stereotyping to me. I look forward to a satisfactory outcome for Rob.

  15. Len says:

    The worst part of this is that it literally could not have happened to a nicer fellow, as anyone who has had the good fortune to know Rob will attest.

  16. eric says:

    “I’m betting school teachers do better.”

    You’d lose that bet. In Miami-Dade County, the median salary for a rookie cop is about $40,000. That’s about the same as the median for *all* public school teachers (i.e. including those with the most experience). This is pretty consistent with what I saw as a lawyer representing unionized school teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and other municipal employees. Cops consistently get paid more, with much more generous benefits (both while on-the-job and as retirees), particularly when looking at comparable levels of experience. Do they deserve it? Maybe. My cop clients sure thought so. My fire fighter clients were skeptical. The rest had mixed feelings.

    And the retail workers who die on the job in the course of robberies and assaults at rates roughly comparable to cops would be rather surprised at the assertion that their deaths are “accidental” or not the result of someone trying to kill them.

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