By Jacqueline A. Seabrooks
For the past 34 years, I have been a public servant. A police officer. For over eight years, I have been a police chief in two quite different communities of Los Angeles County. Today, I am the chief of the Santa Monica Police Department.
On September 6, 2015, our officers were dispatched to a 9-1-1 call reporting an in-progress residential burglary, a serious felony crime. The caller reported that three subjects—two women and a man—were breaking into an apartment. The subjects were described as a Latino male wearing a dark hat and dark shirt and two girls, possibly Hispanic, wearing dark clothing.
Because of factors such as the time of night, the number of possible suspects, and the nature of the call, multiple officers responded directly to the location. Although fewer officers were actually dispatched to the call, because of what the neighbor reported to the 9-1-1 operator, two supervisors and 15 police officers responded. Based on the information provided by the 9-1-1 caller, in smaller communities like Santa Monica, a response of this type is not uncommon.
From those officers who responded, a smaller subset of uniformed police officers, including a police K-9, went directly to the apartment where the burglary was said to be occurring. Two officers in this smaller group responded with their guns drawn. The other officers remained in the general area, away from the apartment, setting up containment, restricting pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and otherwise preparing for the worst while hoping for the best.
The officers at the apartment initially encountered a woman who was later determined to be the apartment resident. She was detained, even as she asserted that she was the apartment’s resident. The officers concluded the investigation taking the actions necessary to verify that no burglary occurred and that the woman, Ms. Fay Wells, was the apartment’s resident.
What the officers learned was that Ms. Wells locked herself out of her apartment and had called a locksmith to let her in. The neighbor and 9-1-1 caller, who did not recognize Ms. Wells, her companion, or the locksmith, believed a residential burglary was occurring.
When the scene was stabilized and the officers learned that Ms. Wells was, in fact, the apartment resident, two police supervisors and two police officers, including the K-9 handler, spent considerable time explaining what brought the police to Ms. Wells’ door. We were making an effort to help her understand what happened. Even the neighbor who called 9-1-1 came over and tried to explain why he called.
Unfortunately, none of these efforts worked.
As a black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how this experience has made her feel. On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response.
This seeming dichotomy may be difficult for some to accept, particularly given the national dialogue. From my perspective, the 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary. Put yourself in his place.
And Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes.
The Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes.
This incident is reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective, whether you see a blob of ink, the image of an old woman, or a beautiful woman’s profile. Some will see this circumstance as an indictment of law enforcement; others will see it as further proof of the breakdown in police-community relations. For me, I don’t see this incident as either of those things. Instead, this incident presents an opportunity for all facets of our community and this Police Department to continue to work together, to engage in on-going conversations about the realities and myths of the protective function inherent in policing, and to emphasize the importance of community, particularly in terms of knowing one’s neighbors.
I hope we can all be more thoughtful before we rush to condemn the actions of a group of police officers who were doing their best to keep our community safe.