Friday, February 17, 2012

Grits for Breakfast: Is "Babysitting While White" reasonable suspicion for police questioning?

Is "Babysitting While White" reasonable suspicion for police questioning?

Normally this blog focuses on the news of the day instead of personal stories, but I had an odd experience this morning that intersects with many of this blog's common themes, so I hope readers will excuse this self-indulgent anecdote.

In short, the Austin Police Department inconvenienced, annoyed, and angered me, in that order, culminating in an incident where I was subjected to an odd and surprisingly overt brand of racial profiling just two blocks from my own house.

Before getting into the racial profiling angle, though, let me provide some necessary background for this morning's anecdote. I've been taking care of my granddaughter Ty today because Austin police inexplicably ordered seven area schools shut down after a shootout overnight with police involving one suspect killed and two more still at large. Nearby day care facilities closed along with the schools, including the one where Ty usually goes. Fair enough. But when my goddaughter called in a panic with no child care for the day, it meant I found myself tasked with unplanned, impromptu babysitting duties, like hundreds of other parents and grandparents around Austin.

Two-year old Ty particularly loves a nearby neighborhood park, so off we went around mid-morning with her tiny hand wrapped around my index finger. After a fun time, we took a different route going back, at Ty's suggestion, in order to pass by a house where she knows she'll often see (and get to pet) a couple of friendly cats.

Two blocks from home, an Austin police officer pulled up and, to my surprise, got out and announced she was there to question me. Someone had called 911, she said, to report a suspicious looking white man walking down the street holding hands with a black toddler. (I could tell where this line of questioning was headed.) She said this as though it were the most natural thing in the world for police to investigate, as though my race and Ty's, in and of itself, was reason enough to stop and question me.

I've heard of racial profiling episodes involving "Driving While Black," but "Babysitting While White" is a new one on me. 'What's your relationship with this girl?', she wanted to know. 'Where are you going, where are you coming from?' "No offense," I told her, "but that's none of your business."

Not wanting to violate the failure to identify statute, I gave her my name, address and birthdate but refused to answer any other questions. ("I'm going to write down that you were noncooperative," she warned ominously, as though admonishing an elementary school student that some infraction might go on their permanent record. "Oh no, not that," I thought to myself.)

I asked if we could leave, but the officer kept me there demanding answers. "Someone complained," she declared, "we have to follow up." "Like hell you do," I told her, "not when you don't have reasonable suspicion to think I did anything wrong."

To my astonishment, while we were talking, another officer pulled up in response to the 911 call, this one a tall, older, thick-chested fellow with graying hair who felt the need to demonstrate his dominance. I replied to his "I'm in charge here" bluster by again asking, "Am I free to go?" "No you are not," he insisted, "not until I'm finished," and continued his pointless monologue.

Meanwhile, a THIRD police car pulled up to the scene. By then I was getting mad. Austin police had already disrupted my day significantly because they're supposedly out hunting armed killers, but they've got enough extra cops lollygagging around to send THREE squad cars to investigate me for Babysitting While White?

"Don't you people have actual crimes to investigate?" I demanded. (Admittedly, that didn't go over so well.)

"Aren't y'all supposed to be chasing shooters with assault rifles? Why are you bothering us?" The tall male cop replied that he'd just been at the locked down neighborhood and was working that case all morning. "Great," I thought, "so they pulled this guy off an actual crime to harass me walking down the street."

The truth is, I'm not so much angry about the racial angle. Black folks have been pointlessly stopped and questioned for generations because of their skin color in this neighborhood, and today it was just my turn. However, I adamantly maintain my skin color alone did not give police reasonable suspicion to question me, just like Driving While Black isn't a reason to pull over an African American driver (or a white driver because they're in a black neighborhood). And as a taxpayer, I'm incredulous that APD wasted three officers' time to respond to such a spurious 911 call at a moment when there were actual, violent criminals running around town with assault weapons. Don't these guys have supervisors? Prioritize, people!

Finally, the first officer answered my increasingly repetitious question, "Am I free to go?" with a reluctant "Yes," at which point I turned heel with the toddler grasped firmly in my arms and walked briskly towards home, both of us a little rattled by the experience. "They scared me, Grandpa," Ty said, sobbing lightly as she nestled her head into the crook of my neck. "I know, sweetie," I told her, "they scared me, too." And by the time we reached home, she was asleep in my arms.

Sent from my iPhone

Posted via email from Tony Burkhart

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