In the Crossfire

How much force does a police department need? When Fay Wells, Tu’06, locked herself out of her Santa Monica apartment last fall, a neighbor reported her as a burglar. This is her story.

Last September 6, I locked myself out of my apartment in Santa Monica, California. I was in a rush to get to my weekly soccer game, so I decided to go play and deal with the lock afterward.

A few hours and a visit from a locksmith later, I was inside my apartment and slipping off my shoes when I heard a man’s voice and what sounded like a small dog whimpering outside, near my front window. I imagined a loiterer and opened the door to move him along. I was surprised to see a large dog halfway up the staircase to my door. I stepped back inside, closed the door and locked it.

I heard barking. I approached my front window and loudly asked what was going on. Peering through my blinds, I saw a gun. A man stood at the bottom of the stairs, pointing it at me. I stepped back and heard, “Come outside with your hands up.” I thought, This man has a gun and will kill me if I don’t come outside. At the same time I thought, I’ve heard this line from policemen in movies. Although he didn’t identify himself, perhaps he’s an officer.

I left my apartment in my socks, shorts and a light jacket, my hands in the air. “What’s going on?” I asked again. Two police officers had guns trained on me. They shouted, “Who’s in there with you? How many of you are there?”

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 (SMPD) 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’d gone to Duke, that I have an M.B.A. 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 that 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.

I demanded all of their names and was given few. Some officers simply ignored me when I asked, boldly turning and walking away. Afterward, I saw them talking to neighbors, but they ignored me when I approached them again. A sergeant assured me that he’d personally provide me with all names and badge numbers.

I introduced myself to the reporting neighbor and asked if he was aware of the gravity of his actions—the ocean of armed officers, my life in danger. He stuttered about never having seen me, before snippily asking if I knew my next-door neighbor. After confirming that I did and questioning him further, he angrily responded, “I’m an attorney, so you can go f--- yourself,” and walked away.

I spoke with two of the officers a little while longer, trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude and nature of their response. They wondered, Wouldn’t I want the same response if I’d been the one who called the cops? “Absolutely not,” I told them. I recounted my terror and told them how I imagined it all ending, particularly in light of the recent interactions between police and people of color. One officer admitted that it was complicated but added that people sometimes kill cops for no reason. I was momentarily speechless at this strange justification.

I got no clear answers from the police that night and am still struggling to get them, despite multiple visits, calls and emails to the SMPD requesting the names of the officers, their badge numbers, the audio from my neighbor’s call to 911 and the police report. The sergeant didn’t email me the officers’ names as he promised. I was told that the audio of the call requires a subpoena and that the small army of responders, guns drawn, hadn’t merited an official report. I eventually received a list from the SMPD of 17 officers who came to my apartment that night, but the list does not include the names of two officers who handed me their business cards on the scene. I’ve filed an official complaint with internal affairs.

To many, the militarization of the police is primarily abstract or painted as occasional. That thinking allows each high-profile incident of aggressive police interaction with people of color—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray—to be written off as an outlier.

What happened to them did not happen to me, but it easily could have. The SMPD sent 19 armed police officers who refused to answer my questions while violating my rights, privacy and sense of well-being. A wrong move and I could have been shot. My complaint is not the first against the department this year. This spring the local branch of the NAACP and other concerned residents met with SMPD to discuss several incidents of aggressive policing against people of color. The NAACP asked SMPD for demographic information on all traffic, public transportation and pedestrian stops. The department has promised to release a report of detailed arrest data next year.

The trauma of that night lingers. I can’t unsee the guns, the dog, the officers forcing their way into my apartment, the small army waiting for me outside. Almost daily I deal with sleeplessness, confusion, anger and fear. I’m frightened when I see large dogs now. I have nightmares of being beaten by white men as they call me the n-word. Every week I see the man who called 911. He averts his eyes and ignores me.

I’m heartbroken that his careless assessment of me, based on skin color, could endanger my life. I’m heartbroken by the sense of terror I got from people whose job is supposedly to protect me. I’m heartbroken by a system that evades accountability and justifies dangerous behavior. I’m heartbroken that the place I called home no longer feels safe. I’m heartbroken that no matter how many times a story like this is told, it will happen again. Still, I wrote an account of the incident that appeared in The Washington Post in November. Four days after it appeared, I also wrote a note to myself. I sealed it in a self-addressed stamped envelope and forgot about it.

Several months later, I sit on my couch and reflect. I realize that I underestimated the resonance of my story. 

At arm’s length, it is surreal. Millions of readers make it the No. 1 article on the Post website for three days. Tens of thousands discuss it on social media. Russell Simmons shares my story on Facebook. Up close, it is overwhelming. Media appear at the apartment I no longer sleep in. National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera, Roland Martin, Steve Harvey and every local TV outlet want to talk. I interview with a few before the frenzy begins to subside. Those I don’t talk to—such as The New York Times—write their own versions of what it all means. 

Many stand with me. It feels as if an equal number do not. The SMPD releases audio omitting my pleas for answers while it refuses to respond, weapons drawn. The department crafts a statement absolving itself. 

It distresses me. 

Family and friends call and text their support. Many open their hearts and lend their homes as I search for a new place to live. My fear of being alone begins to dissipate. I sleep more as the nightmares become less frequent. My anxiety about going public eases. 

I focus on expanding the conversation. I press SMPD for answers as its internal affairs investigation remains opaque, with a few glimmers of a likely biased outcome. Internal affairs officers refuse to answer when I ask why SMPD lied to me that night and say they have no information about the race of anyone involved—even though the official 911 audio the department released identified a suspect as Hispanic. They give conflicting answers about the officers’ treatment of me. They fail to explain why they ignored my requests for information until the Post got involved. 

I join local civil rights groups focused on police reform. I work closely with them, writing letters, demanding accountability and institutional reform in the Santa Monica government and local law enforcement. I speak at local meetings for the NAACP, Santa Monica Committee for Racial Justice, and Coalition for Police Reform. I publicly march for others abused by SMPD. 

We persistently question SMPD’s treatment of people of color. It consistently denies wrongdoing, even as citizens continually come forward, recounting their stories of SMPD’s abuse, often first-hand. A young black father arrested and pepper-sprayed while charging his electric car, a young black woman arrested and taunted by police while peacefully demonstrating, a long-time resident who witnessed a racial slur and potential profiling while on a SMPD ride-along.

They apologize to none of us. But they can no longer ignore us. We speak publicly, insisting on better explanations, statistical data on officers’ interactions with people of color, more anti-bias training, equal treatment of all citizens.

This incremental, slow change we’re negotiating pains me, some days less than others. 

In January I attend Santa Monica’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. There I meet Terrance Ware, a local college student who receives an award for his essay, “Peace Requires Defeating Injustice.” His essay contemplates King’s pillars of nonviolence, Ware’s South Central upbringing, my Santa Monica ordeal and our common desire for change. I am deeply, physically, moved to tears. Ware is not a friend or relative. He is not a journalist or full-time activist. He is simply someone to whom my story matters. 

On February 18, exactly three months after my Post article appeared, I receive in the mail my forgotten note—the letter I’d written to myself back in November. How it found its way back to me remains a mystery.

It reads, “Fay, I wish you to fully have the gift of discernment, emotionally and intellectually. I hope it gets better daily and that you feel more comfortable in all of the decisions you made.”

I smile. I am healing.                  

Fay Wells is vice president of strategy at a company in California. This article incorporates much of her piece that ran in The Washington Post.


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