A police encounter described by Doug Glanville in The Atlantic:
It was an otherwise ordinary snow day in Hartford, Connecticut, and I was laughing as I headed outside to shovel my driveway. I’d spent the morning scrambling around, trying to stay ahead of my three children’s rising housebound energy, and once my shovel hit the snow, I thought about how my wife had been urging me to buy a snowblower. I hadn’t felt an urgent need. Whenever it got ridiculously blizzard-like, I hired a snow removal service. And on many occasions, I came outside to find that our next door neighbor had already cleared my driveway for me.
Never mind that our neighbor was an empty-nester in his late 60s with a replaced hip, and I was a former professional ballplayer in his early 40s. I kept telling myself I had to permanently flip the script and clear his driveway. But not today. I had to focus on making sure we could get our car out for school the next morning. My wife was at a Black History Month event with our older two kids. The snow had finally stopped coming down and this was my mid-afternoon window of opportunity.
Just as I was good-naturedly turning all this over in my mind, my smile disappeared.
A police officer from West Hartford had pulled up across the street, exited his vehicle, and begun walking in my direction. I noted the strangeness of his being in Hartford—an entirely separate town with its own police force—so I thought he needed help. He approached me with purpose, and then, without any introduction or explanation he asked, “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”
All of my homeowner confidence suddenly seemed like an illusion.
It would have been all too easy to play the “Do you know who I am?” game. My late father was an immigrant from Trinidad who enrolled at Howard University at age 31 and went on to become a psychiatrist. My mother was an important education reformer from the South. I graduated from an Ivy League school with an engineering degree, only to get selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. I went on to play professionally for nearly 15 years, retiring into business then going on to write a book and a column for The New York Times. Today, I work at ESPN in another American dream job that lets me file my taxes under the description “baseball analyst.”
But I didn’t mention any of this to the officer. I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question. But I knew I wouldn’t be smiling anymore that day.
After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.
ZOMG!! What a horrible example of racial injustice!! Somebody call Touré Neblett and Al Sharpton! Unleash the marchers!!
But wait! There’s more!!
The first step was to articulate exactly what the West Hartford officer had done. He’d been outside his jurisdiction—the representative from internal affairs had confirmed this. That meant a police officer from another town had come to my house, approached me while I was shoveling my own driveway, and—without any introduction—asked me a very presumptuous question.
All of this had put me in an extremely vulnerable situation. In one moment, I went from being an ordinary father and husband, carrying out a simple household chore, to a suspect offering a defense. The inquiry had forced me to check my tone, to avoid sounding smug even when I was stating the obvious: that I was shoveling the driveway because the house belonged to me.
Many people I spoke with brought up Henry Louis Gates, the noted Harvard scholar who was arrested for breaking into his own home. If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?
Henry Louis Gates was the guy who got arrested because he freaked out when a cop asked him to show identification after he was seen breaking into what turned out to be his own house. He was NOT racially profiled. I posted about the incident when it happened, way back when at the old place.
But was this new case an example of racial profiling?
After getting legal advice from my neighbor and my wife, I ruled out any immediate action. In fact, I was hesitant to impulsively share my story with anyone I knew, let alone my media friends at ESPN or The New York Times. I hoped to have a meaningful, productive conversation with West Hartford leaders—something that might be hard to achieve if my story turned into a high-profile controversy. Instead, I asked my neighbor to help me arrange a meeting with the West Hartford officials. When I arrived at Town Hall, I was flanked by my neighbor and my wife. They came as supporters, but it helped that they were also attorneys.
I soon learned that West Hartford had an ordinance that prohibits door-to-door solicitation. A man, whom I allegedly resembled, had broken this ordinance. Someone in West Hartford had called the police, and a young officer believing he was doing his duty, had pursued the complaint to my street. Our block would have been the first stop for the wayward shoveler if he had entered Hartford.
Right away, I noted that the whole thing had been a lot of effort over shoveling. The West Hartford ordinance allowed its residents to call in violations at their own discretion—in effect, letting them decide who belonged in the neighborhood and who did not. That was a problem in itself, but it also put the police in a challenging position. They had to find a way to enforce the problem in a racially neutral way, even if they were receiving complaints only on a small subsection of violators. In my case, the officer had not only spoken to me without respect but had crossed over into a city where West Hartford’s ordinance didn’t even apply.
When my mother heard the story of the West Hartford policeman, she responded with wry humor: “You got your come-uppance again.” I knew exactly what she meant. If you are the president, or a retired professional athlete, it can be all too easy to feel protected from everyday indignities. But America doesn’t let any of us deny our connection to the black “everyman.” And unfortunately that connection, which should be a welcome one, can be forced upon us in a way that undermines our self-esteem, our collective responsibility, and our sense of family and history.
(You really need to read the whole article to get the full dramatic effect.)
So the West Hartford police receive a call from a concerned citizen regarding someone allegedly violating a local ordinance. A police officer is dispatched to investigate. It’s unclear whether the cop talked to the caller or was just given a location and a description of the suspect. Either way he was informed that the suspect was a black male.
Violations of local ordinances are still crimes. Apparently the citizens of West Hartford, by and thru their elected representatives, had decided that door-to-door solicitation should be prohibited.
The cop could have just blown off the complaint but apparently he was conscientious and drove around the neighbor to look for the alleged violator. As it turns out the neighborhood included Mr. Glanville’s street, even though it was across the border in a different town.
So when he drives around the block he sees a guy who answers the general description of the suspect shoveling a driveway. It seems to me to be a reasonable inference for the officer to make that Glanville might be the suspect he was looking for.
The cop did not run over and throw Glanville to the ground and cuff him. He didn’t point a gun at him either. He simply asked a question. Then, apparently satisfied with the response he received, he left.
I don’t know what was in the cop’s mind. Maybe he is a racist. Maybe he’s just a jerk. Or maybe he was just a cop trying to do his job. Could he have been more diplomatic? Sure, but that’s not proof of racial profiling.
Maybe the cop just intended to give Glanville a friendly warning about the local ordinance. Maybe he lived nearby and he was going to offer Glanville $20 to go shovel his driveway too.
It’s not always racism. I really hate this idea that if something unusual or negative happens to a black person that the most likely explanation is racism. Shit happens to white people too.