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

Me as I usually appear on my 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.

Something was up.

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

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

“Bullsh*t does not become you,” I thought, as the car swerved suddenly for the cur without warning, cutting me off and surprising the hell out of me. Had I been going any faster, I might actually have flipped my bicycle 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?”

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

My first thought was, “You can’t possibly be serious.”

She was so aggressive, in fact, I involuntarily laughed when she asked me if I had ever been arrested. It was like being verbally assaulted by a really bad actor in a terrible B movie. Who was clearly pulling from the exact same script every victim of profiling I had ever interviewed told me they used. And who was armed.

She was not amused.

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.

Sh*t was getting real.

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. You’re afraid to look away from the aggressor because you don’t know what they are going to do next. You don’t see badge numbers, you don’t see name plates, you don’t see anything happening around you. As so many have described, you instead lock in to a high-stakes mental chess game in which all you can think about is how to move slowly and convince them you’re non-threatening while standing your ground and not exacerbating the situation.

“Why are you stopping me?” I asked calmly. “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?”

“I never said anything about crack!” the Sheriff Deputy said.

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

Throwing up her hands in her best, if completely unintentional, Neil deGrasse Tyson impression, she said, “I never said anything about crack!”

B*tch, please, I desperately wanted to say. We all know why we are standing on this street corner.

“Look,” I finally pulled the press card after realizing this could take an ugly turn at some point soon – 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 deGrasse Tyson-style 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.”

Instead I said angrily, “I know this community. 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.

“Now you know how we feel,” laughed every single black person in Watts that I spoke to later that afternoon. “We go through this every day.”

They knew I was aware of what life was like for them, 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 couldn’t help but be amused both that I got a taste of what they go through and that the Sheriffs saw me as such a troublesome presence.

Even one of the LAPD officers patrolling the area shook his head sadly 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 really 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, here, or here). Especially when the officers express such overt disdain for the very communities and people they are paid to protect and serve.

There are good officers out there.

I’ve met them.

And I can see how the difference in their relationship with the community improves their ability to police the area and be of service to residents.

But those officers are unfortunately the exception, not the norm.

Our communities deserve better.

* * * *

*“Reverse,” used in the original title link, refers to the fact that, upon learning I was a journalist, officers claimed to be concerned about my safety and that others (read: other people of color) might be a threat to me. It also refers to the officers’ stated belief that only people who looked a certain kind of way would ever have any reasonable excuse for being in the neighborhood.

**“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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