Reddit recently featured an article by Scott Henson, a man who has had some run-ins with the police for taking his granddaughter out and around. He’s a blogger who covers the criminal justice system, so, rather than simply “deal with it” as most men do, he wrote about it and drew a lot of attention to a problem that is all too often ignored.
Although it’s fairly typical these days for any older man alone in public with a child, particularly a girl, to come under some suspicion, in Henson’s case the circumstances were aggravated by the fact that his granddaughter is black. He adopted a black girl some years ago, and now that she is grown up and has her own child, he does what good grandparents often do: he spends time with the little one and takes her around town to have fun and learn about the world. In the following incident, she learned a lesson about the American police state that, while not fun, may come in handy when she grows up.
Perhaps at 7:40 p.m. or so, after she’d had her fill of skating (if the event were put to music, the appropriate theme song would have been “Slip Slidin’ Away”), I asked Ty if she’d like to walk home and let Grandma take the car. It was cool but pleasant out, and we were just a short distance from the house, with a city-bike path where we often walk dogs together taking us most of the way there. She was elated: This sounded like a big adventure, and within moments she was bouncing off the walls with excitement, making me think a walk home was just the thing to burn off some energy before bed time.
This was a terrible mistake on Grandpa’s part. Not because we live in a relatively rough neighborhood. I know many of my neighbors, saints and scoundrels alike, and I did not and do not fear becoming a crime victim walking that route, even with a five year old in tow. No, apparently the only folks Ty and I had to fear were in uniform.
Our interaction with law enforcement began after we left the Millennium Center on foot, with the giddy five year old racing ahead and me trotting along behind admonishing her to stay out of the parking lot and stop when she gets to the sidewalk, don’t run into the street, etc.. She was in a good mood, obeyed, and we held hands crossing the street and as we walked down the bike path toward Boggy Creek and back home.
Then behind us I heard someone call out, though I couldn’t make out what was said. We stopped to look back, and there was a dark silhouette crossing the street who Ty thought was calling out to us. We waited, but then the silhouetted figure stopped, crouched down for a moment, then took a few steps back toward the rec center, appearing to speak to someone there. I shrugged it off and we walked on, but in a moment the figure began walking down the path toward us again, calling out when she was about 150 feet away. We stopped and waited. It was a brown-suited deputy constable, apparently out of breath from the short walk.
She told me to take my hand out of my pocket and to step away from Ty, declaring that someone had seen a white man chasing a black girl and reported a possible kidnapping. Then she began asking the five-year old about me. The last time this happened, Ty was barely two, and I wasn’t about to let police question her. This time, though, at least initially, I decided to let her answer. “Do you know this man?” the deputy asked. “Yes,” Ty mumbled shyly, “he’s my Grandpa.” The deputy couldn’t understand her (though I did) and moved closer, hovering over the child slightly, repeating the question. Ty mumbled the same response, this time louder, but muffled through a burgeoning sob that threatened to break out in lieu of an answer.
The deputy still didn’t understand her: “What did you say?” she repeated. “He’s my Grandpa!,” Ty finally blurted, sharply and clearly, then rushed back over to me and grabbed hold of my leg. “Okay,” said the deputy, relaxing, acknowledging the child probably wasn’t being held against her will. (As we were talking, a car pulled up behind her on the bike path with its brights on – I couldn’t tell what agency it was with) Then she pulled out her pad and paper and asked “Can I get your name, sir, just for my report?” I told her I’d prefer not to answer any questions and would like to leave, if we were free to go, so I could get the child to bed. She looked skeptical but nodded and Ty and I turned tail and walked toward home.
That was just the beginning. Henson knows that he doesn’t have to comply with police demands that he answer questions, but he probably also knows that they do not like it when citizens refuse to answer. Nevertheless, he did the right thing. One of the few checks on police behavior is citizens exercising their rights, which include not talking to police when they do not want to.
However, soon thereafter Mr. Henson received the kind of treatment usually meted out to suspects fleeing a crime:
As soon as we crossed the street, just two blocks from my house as the crow flies, the police car that just passed us hit its lights and wheeled around, with five others appearing almost immediately, all with lights flashing. The officers got out with tasers drawn demanding I raise my hands and step away from the child. I complied, and they roughly cuffed me, jerking my arms up behind me needlessly. Meanwhile, Ty edged up the hill away from the officers, crying. One of them called out in a comforting tone that they weren’t there to hurt her, but another officer blew up any good will that might have garnered by brusquely snatching her up and scuttling her off to the back seat of one of the police cars. (By this time more cars had joined them; they maxxed out at 9 or 10 police vehicles.)
I gave them the phone numbers they needed to confirm who Ty was and that she was supposed to be with me (and not in the back of their police car), but for quite a while nobody seemed too interested in verifying my “story.” One officer wanted to lecture me endlessly about how they were just doing their job, as if the innocent person handcuffed on the side of the road cares about such excuses. I asked why he hadn’t made any calls yet, and he interrupted his lecture to say “we’ve only been here two minutes, give us time” (actually it’d been longer than that). “Maybe so,” I replied, sitting on the concrete in handcuffs, “but there are nine of y’all milling about doing nothing by my count so between you you’ve had 18 minutes for somebody to get on the damn phone by now so y’all can figure out you screwed up.” Admittedly, this did not go over well. I could tell I was too pissed off to say anything constructive and silently vowed to keep mum from then on.
As all this was happening, the deputy constable who’d questioned us before walked up to the scene and began conversing with some of the officers. She kept looking over at me nervously as I stood 20 feet or so away in handcuffs, averting her gaze whenever our eyes risked meeting. It seemed pretty clear she was the one who called in the cavalry, and it was equally clear she understood she was in the wrong.
Ty told me later that back in the police car she’d been questioned, not just about me but about her personal life, or as she put it, “all my business”: They asked about her school, what she’d been doing that evening, to name all the people in her family, and pressed her to say if I or anyone else had done anything to her. Ty was frustrated, she said later, that they kept repeating the same questions, apparently hoping for different answers. She didn’t understand why, after she’d told them who I was, the police didn’t just let me go. And when it became clear they wouldn’t take her word for it, she began to fear the police would take me away and leave her alone with all those scary cops. (I must admit, for a moment there I felt the same way!) On the upside, said Ty, when they were through questioning her one of the officers let her play with his flashlight, which she considered a high point. Don’t you miss life being that simple?
Part of the answer, of course, to Ty’s Very Good Question about why I wasn’t released when she confirmed my identity is that I was in handcuffs and she was in police custody before anybody asked anyone anything. “Seize first and ask questions later” is better than “shoot first,” I suppose, but it’s problematic for the same reasons. I found out later police had told my wife and Ty’s mom that I’d refused to let them question the child – a patent lie since they’d whisked her away into the back of a police car while I was handcuffed. I wasn’t in a position to refuse anything at that point.
Chances that a man in public with a child is a kidnapper are remote (most kidnappings are carried out by mothers, actually), but such paranoia about men has gripped our society that people are willing to put up with routine violations of civil rights to make sure the men aren’t up to no good. This is not normal around the world, but rather specific to Anglosphere countries, which have the most repressive policies and negative views regarding men and their intentions on the planet.
Part of the problem is that every time there is an incident involving one particularly problematic man, an exception to the majority normal men who are perfectly trustworthy around children, a panic sweeps the land and new policies and laws are adopted targeting all men. As these policies and laws have escalated, the result has been to make any man with a woman or child a de facto suspect who may be roughed up by the police with impunity, so long as they are “protecting women and children.” It is exactly this justification that has made a mockery of the US Constitution, not only in the private family, but on the public street as well.