“You Don’t Belong Here:” Sheriffs Profile Reporter

The reporter and her bike. (Photo: Sarah Nikolovska)

“Hi,” said a terse voice to my left.

I turned my head to see a Sheriffs’ car rolling slowly down 92nd Street in Watts with me.

The white deputy in the passenger seat who was sizing me up appeared highly displeased with whatever conclusion she had come to.

They are way too close, I thought.

“Do you need something?” I asked, figuring it was best to get right to it.

“No, we’re just saying ‘Hi,'” she said.

But the deputy who was driving suddenly swerved for the curb, cutting me off without warning. Had I been going any faster, I might have flipped over their front end.

The white deputy got out and began aggressively firing questions as she moved closer to me.

“What are you doing here?”

“Are you on parole?”

“Are you on probation?”

“Have you ever been arrested?”

“Are you sure you’ve never been arrested?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Do you have any identification?”

“What are you doing here?”

The level of aggression was so wildly disproportionate to the situation that it took me a second to get my head in the game.

Her hand was now on her belt, near her service weapon. Her partner (a Latina) had gotten out of the car and was standing behind her, off to my left.

When you are in a confrontation where the one of the parties is armed and it isn’t you, you get this strange kind of tunnel vision. Or at least, I do. I was afraid to look away from them because I didn’t know what they were going to do next. I didn’t see badge numbers, I didn’t see name plates, I didn’t see anything else happening around me. As so many have described, all I could think about was how to move slowly and convince them I was non-threatening while standing my ground and not exacerbating the situation.

“Why are you stopping me?” I asked. “What’s your ‘probable cause’?”**

The questions kept coming.

What was I doing there? Could I show her some identification?

I calmly protested I had every right to be there, that I hadn’t done anything wrong, and asked again for them to tell me what cause they had to stop me.

“What are you doing here?”

Figuring I would just get to the heart of what I believed the stop was about, I told her, “You know, I’m not here to buy drugs…”

Throwing up her hands, she said, “I never said anything about drugs!”

I shook my head. We all knew why we were standing on this street corner.

“Look,” I finally pulled the press card – a privilege too many folks of color do not have. “I’m a journalist and I’m here to interview someone. I have every right to be here. Why are you stopping me?”

Now it was the Latina officer’s turn to throw up her hands defensively and start backing away from me.

“Ma’am, ma’am, if you would just let us explain. You look like you don’t belong here. Which means there are only two reasons you are here. Either you are lost, in which case we need to explain to you that it is not a safe place for you to be. Or, you are here for a bad reason.”

I wanted to pull out my voice recorder and say, “Please tell me again exactly how you feel about this community that you are paid to protect and serve.”

“I know this community,” I said instead. “I’ve been working in this community for almost two years.”

Still backing up, the Latina officer said that now that they knew why I was there, everything was fine and we could all go on our way.

And with that, they were gone.

A man standing just off to the side who had witnessed the whole exchange shrugged.

“Now you know how we feel,” everyone laughed once I finally got to my destination. “We go through this every day.”

They knew I was aware of how often this happened and how unlikely it was that they would be able to walk away from such an encounter so easily. But they were also amused that the Sheriffs saw me as such a troublesome presence and would take the risk of hassling someone who was not from the area.

Even an LAPD captain shook his head when I told him the story. He acknowledged that people in Watts really hated the Sheriffs and said there was no call for any officers to be aggressive with people that way.

There isn’t.

Given the testimony of those I’ve interviewed on the subject over the past several years, it is precisely that aggression that makes law enforcement the enemy instead of an ally in embattled communities like Watts.

There is no reasonable conversation that can be had when someone is on the offensive, assailing you with questions that imply you are guilty of some unspecified but surely evil deed. Especially when that is the baseline for the interaction.

If someone like me – an outsider who has the privilege to demand that my rights be respected – can be shamelessly harassed that way, it’s not hard to see just how much more vulnerable disadvantaged community members are to mistreatment and more, something that bears out in all the stories I’ve gathered (see here, here, here, here, or here). Especially when the officers express such overt disdain for the very communities and people they are paid to protect and serve.

Our communities deserve better.

* * * *

*“Reverse,” used in the original title link, refers to officers’ claims to be concerned about my safety and that others might be a threat to me. The title was edited out of concern that it implied that there was such a thing as “reverse” racism or that my experience was in any way commensurate with the profiling residents regularly experience.

**“Probable cause” is the wrong term, as a few commenters have pointed out below. The correct term would have been “reasonable suspicion.”

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*This story features interviews with a number of youth. Some are named. Others requested they remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information divulged. This story is the second in a series on the impact of generational disenfranchisement and trauma and repressive policing. The first, “Death and All His Friends,” can be found here. […]