Would You Call the Police if You Were in Danger?

I know the news cycle is fast, and maybe people have already moved on with yet another headline, but I’m still thinking about Philando Castile. Like most people, I hadn’t seen any footage of Philando Castile’s horrible and completely preventable, totally unnecessary killing until after the officer was found not-guilty and the dashcam footage was released. Like most people, I was nauseous when I saw it, and then nauseous again when I remembered a jury found the officer not-guilty. Further retching came as footage showed how Diamond and her toddler were treated in such a demeaning, cruel, despicable way after the shooting.

In the conversations I’ve watched online, I haven’t see police officers speaking out on behalf of Philando Castile’s killer, which is good. But I haven’t seen them condemning the injustice of the verdict either. 

In previous discussions we’ve had here about police violence against black citizens, some readers feel very defensive of police officers. And still others are married to cops or closely related to them and feel personally touched by news stories regarding police violence.

I too have felt defensive of police officers as a group. I might read a news story and be disgusted by a specific cop, but still have positive feelings for policing as a whole. In my own life, my interactions with police officers have been infrequent and generally positive. And I found myself wanting to believe that if there was a better training system in place, and if the bad apples could be weeded out of the force, the pattern of police violence and aggression could end.

But a switch flipped for me with the Philando Castile verdict. No doubt it flipped for many (or most) black people in America long ago. The problem is so much bigger than I wanted to recognize. We have millions and millions and millions of law-abiding citizens who can’t call the police without putting their lives at risk in a very real way. We have millions and millions and millions of parents who are raising black children, and having to teach them not to call the police when they are in danger. And we have a huge chunk of our population, and a huge chunk of our police force, in denial about the whole thing.

A Facebook friend and lecturer at Stanford named Cynthia Bailey Lee wrote this and I’ve read it several times:

“I cannot imagine in a million years that the widow and child of a white man who had just been shot and killed would not be hugged, embraced, offered snacks from the officers’ own lunchboxes, offered phone calls and services, and more, by the police at the scene.

I was in a traffic accident that was my fault (!), and the police fawned over me, “are you ok m’am,” recognized the emotional trauma of the event (again, my fault), offered unsolicited advice on emotional self care and taking it easy the rest of the day etc, even offered me a ride home (in the front seat!!) so I didn’t have to call an Uber.

I have a friend who recently lost an immediate family member and the way they describe the officers at the scene is that they were themselves deeply shaken in empathy with my friend’s loss.

I watch this video of Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter, and here she is handcuffed, not emotionally or physically attended to *at all*, not even able to embrace and soothe her bereaved child. Reynolds asks a passing officer if her fiance is alive or dead and he says indifferently that he doesn’t know and hasn’t spoken to the medics. He hasn’t bothered to stay abreast of whether this woman’s fiance is alive or dead. Think about that.

Here’s the fact I have to face in comparing these experiences: the police at the scene do not consider Diamond to be a real human being. They do not consider Philando to be a real human being. They just don’t. Because I can’t imagine in a million years that they would treat the real human being new widow and real human being child of a dead real human being this way.” — #BlackLivesMatter

I could relate to what Cynthia wrote so much. I too have been treated kindly by police officers, even in instance when I was at fault. I too have to conclude that the police officers on the scene at Philando Castile’s murder did not consider Philando or Diamond to be real human beings.

We know the job of police officers can be intense and dangerous (though not the most dangerous job in our country). We know it’s hard. But it’s also a career people actively choose, even knowing the possible dangers. We know community minded people may be drawn to the career. We also know power-hungry authoritarians may be drawn to the career. Do we need to prevent power-hungry types from joining the force? And have we given our police forces the benefit of the doubt for too long?

And how much of the problem is the militarized aspect of the police force? When I was a kid, the police force had completely different weapons and a different presence in the community. Are we being better served by a militarized police force?

I keep wondering, at what point should police officers loyalty and duty be to the American People (who pay their wages), and not to their fellow police officers? I think it would be a big deal to hear them speaking out en masse about the injustice of the non-guilty verdict of Philando Castile’s killer.

Have your views of the police force changed over the last few years? Have you stopped giving the police force in your community the benefit of the doubt? For those of you raising black or brown kids, how do you talk to them about the police? For those of you raising white kids, how do you talk to them about the police? If you’re someone who hasn’t been able to understand the motives behind the #blacklivesmatter movement, did news about Philando Castile’s killing help it become more clear for you? And what’s your situation personally — if you were in danger, would you feel comfortable calling the police?


Image credit: Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

40 thoughts on “Would You Call the Police if You Were in Danger?”

  1. Thank you for saying this. For putting into words everything I have been feeling.
    As white women, we have so much privilege. I do not

    1. I was trying to say that I do not fear the police nor do I teach my daughter how to be careful. Because I don’t need to.
      I will continue to fight as hard as I can to change systematic barriers that keep everyone from leading the lives they wish to.

  2. Dear Gabrielle, Thank you so much for writing this very important post. As a white person, I am aware that I receive different treatment from the police (car accident and one time I was mugged in the street) than Black people do. In the last two or so years of multiple, publicized police killings of Black men, I have become more acutely aware of the vulnerability of African Americans in our society. When I was young I was an anti-war protestor (Vietnam) and on several occasions witnessed intense police brutality against non-violent demonstrators. I myself narrowly missed having my head smashed by a police baton swung a couple of inches above it, breaking in two the wooden stick holding my protest sign. So I have long been aware of this particular use of the police by the state to violently repress what they view as unacceptable protest, even when peaceful. But it took decades longer for me to understand the degree of racism, systemic racism in our entire society, which is manifested in a particularly lethal way in our increasingly militarized police force. (you could also see the difference in the treatment of the armed White men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last year vs the treatment of Native Americans at Standing Rock). It deeply saddens me that racism is so alive and well in our country, years after the end of slavery, and even after Jim Crow was ended as an explicit policy. Now that policy is more covert but its impact on the lives of African Americans is almost as strong. I too know there are very good, very decent police officers out there that deserve our respect and gratitude, but unfortunately their numbers are not great enough or their impact strong enough to change the racism inherent in the system over decades and centuries. It was always thus, we are only learning more now because of cell phone cameras and social media. It is a true American tragedy. One moment that saddened me was listening to Trevor Noah on the Daily Show describe his own response to the not guilty verdict in the Philando Castile murder case. Noah spoke of his own personal experience as a Black man — getting stopped eight times so far by the police for doing nothing, since he has been in this country which is only a few years. HIs realization that he could be shot and killed by the police for literally nothing, and that no one would be found guilty. Because I personally like and respect Trevor Noah so much, and because he is obviously a celebrity and more than middle class, it made the point very clear that this is a problem that affects ALL Black men, regardless of class, etc. I totally “get” and support #BlackLivesMatter. And again, thank you so much for your thoughtful post Gabrielle.

    1. “But it took decades longer for me to understand the degree of racism, systemic racism in our entire society, which is manifested in a particularly lethal way in our increasingly militarized police force. (you could also see the difference in the treatment of the armed White men who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last year vs the treatment of Native Americans at Standing Rock).”

      So true. No matter the particular situation or protest, in the U.S., people of color receive harsher and more militant treatment across the board.

  3. I am a white woman with seven brown kids, including a 14 year old son. My own experience with the police has been nothing but positive, talking my way out of traffic tickets or calling when a neighbor is having a loud, voilent argument in the street at 3 a.m. But I am much less likely to call on that neighbor now than I was just a few years ago, knowing what I do now about how their experience with the police may be very different from my own. I have had hard conversations, especially with my oldest, about things he just CANNOT do, like carry around a toy gun, or generally engage in foolish behavior on public property. We talk about what we wear, how we behave, and what to do if he is stopped by the police for any reason. My husband has very real fears about driving while black. It is a scary world we live in where so many can’t even talk about or acknowledge these problems. My son recently told me one of his friends had had a bike stolen. I asked if the police were involved. My son said, “oh, no, they never call the police.” What can you do when those who are meant to protect you won’t?

    1. “What can you do when those who are meant to protect you won’t?”

      Exactly. And I don’t think many white people (myself included) can understand what that feels like.

      Additionally, it’s insanely unjust that people of color have to pay for a police force that will not protect them.

  4. Barbara Thornton

    SO important to talk about and learn about. I’m heartsick by this tragedy and the real racism that exists, and ashamed of my ignorance until recent years.

  5. Bridget Compagno

    This was a terrible response by an unexperienced officer. I am sad at how we respond to people just because they are black — we expect the worst and that is not fair. I am sad for the family as he was killed in a way that totally, absolutely should not have happened. I have to say, though I’m not sure I agree with the verdict, I’m pretty sure this officer will deal with guilt, stigma, etc. of what happened for the rest of his life — that isn’t good either. Just bad….all the way around, not good.

    1. First off I would like you to *try* and understand the pain you cause black people when you claim people are ‘using or calling racism’ it makes us feel worthless. Because this happens ALL. THE. TIME. and with one light sentence you can cause a lot of pain.

      The officer has expressed no guilt. People are responding not just to the murder of Philando but the way that his child and fiance were treated. Do you agree with cuffing them, and not attending to them, Bridget? Have you seen the video Bridget? Have you read up on it? The officer says he ‘had no choice’, do you see that?

      Last off, the world is changing and your wishy-washy way of not wanting to deal with race will come to light, and will cost you in the future as people realize you are not very caring / enlightened.

  6. A thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing. As a black person, I sometimes (erroneously) think that only black people are concerned about this issue but it is amazing how powerful these comments are to me. It’s a complex issue and I would be the first to say that not all police are bad…not by a long shot. But we have a long way to go. #praywithoutceasing

  7. Thank you for this post. This happened in my community, the officer was part of my town’s police department. I’m so sad that Mr. Castile lost his life and also saddened by the conversations I hear in my community. I’ve learned a lot in the past year, but one thing sticks out…this didn’t happen because of “bad apple” made a mistake. The solution isn’t trying to find the “bad apples.” Systematic Racism and fear of black folks is generally accepted as OK and as a justification for brutality and, in this case, murder. And I also need to say that if I believe in justice and call myself a defender of it, I better start acting on it and not equate an officer’s lifetime of guilt to a black man’s life. That is not justice and Philando’s mom said it exactly right “the Twin Cities failed my son and took his life.” It is embarrassing to sometimes look at the ugly reality of yourself and the community you love and belong to, but I hope that white people truly stop trying to defend our actions and racism. And I don’t mean just the police actions…our city and community and myself helped build this environment where this horror occurs and we just watch it unfold and act like it is something completely not in our control. I need to show support to the movement led by black voices and power in my community because I don’t think I can fix a problem that I keep contributing to by instinctively defending or trying to rationalize oppression.

    1. “The solution isn’t trying to find the “bad apples.” Systematic Racism and fear of black folks is generally accepted as OK and as a justification for brutality and, in this case, murder. And I also need to say that if I believe in justice and call myself a defender of it, I better start acting on it and not equate an officer’s lifetime of guilt to a black man’s life.”

      So well put. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post Gabby. Yes, I was SHOCKED and horrified as I watched this footage. Trevor Noah’s breakdown of the events and watching the events themselves just about did me in. It feels so unfathomable that this officer was found innocent that I can’t understand how this ruling can be allowed. I am absolutely dumbfounded that we don’t have a system in place to overturn rulings like that. I keep thinking of Emmett Till and I keep thinking, have we really not progressed since then?

    This reminds me of the recent Invisibilia episode called the culture inside. A black police office actually talks about his realization that even as a black police officer he too has bias towards other black people. I think the whole episode is really great as the idea is lets not pretend we don’t all have bias–because that shame keeps us from dealing with it. Lets admit it and deal with it. Yes bias is a problem, but when that bias is deadly–time after time after time–it can’t be swept under the rug.

    But to your question–yes I would call the police and I think I would feel safe doing so. And that sucks that so many of our fellow Americans don’t have that same, basic right. Watching Diamond keep her cool and calm demeanor in the most horrorific circumstance I can imagine, guts me. We really don’t live in the same reality.

    1. I too, deeply appreciated Trevor Noah’s broadcast and thoughts about this. It was both moving and educational for me. I haven’t come across that Invisibilia episode — thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Gabrielle,
    I live in St. Paul, MN, and have been so saddened by this case. It makes me nauseous and distracted and, quite frankly, pissed. I pray for his family and try to have hope that justice will come soon.
    Sarah jane

  10. Thanks for digging deep and not shying away from writing about difficult things. For me, these posts take your blog to the next level – from great to amazing. xo

  11. To answer your initial question, I (a white woman) would call the police if I was in danger and alone. My husband (Latino, who grew up in East LA) would hesitate, a lot. I look at my two teenage boys almost every day and try to assess if they are “dark enough” to be targeted by the police. My husband dresses more conservatively than he would prefer for the same reason. We live in a large city, so we don’t do much driving, but when we take a road trip, I do almost all of the driving.

    1. Oh Jen. Trying to assess your own sons “darkness” and how it will affect their safety. I know I can’ t even imagine. And I’m sick that you have to do that.

  12. I live in Finland where polices are very trust worthy and everyone goes through really hard training and psycological tests to even be eligible for the police academy so I’m very grateful for that. Sucks to hear that mostly in America, Africa and Asia where polices uses their power for something else..


      1. Finland is a fairly homogeneous country. I think that is the difference. I can’t speak for Africa or Asia but you will note that most of the responses from American white women speak to how safe they feel with the police. Not so much for people of color. I wish our lives in America were different!

  13. My sons are 13 and 15. They’re Latino, but they look white (in Latin America they’d be “gringo latino”), and they get treated that way. I think every day about what black moms in this country feel as their sweet sons go out the door to school, work, etc. I cannot imagine the stress of living with that constant threat.

    A parallel story: I’m emerging from a troubled marriage, and about a month ago my ex entered my home without permission and refused to leave. I was frightened, and didn’t know what else to do, and called the cops. The guy who came had himself been in an abusive marriage and saw immediately what was going on: he defused the situation, skillfully got my ex out the door, encouraged me to file a trespassing order, was kind and professional to me and my kids. But I was incredibly lucky. My call could very well have been answered by a cop who’d say that if my ex’s name was on the lease, then my ex was entitled to enter the house whenever (not NM law). So many domestic violence calls go that way, which is why many women don’t call.

    We have so far to go together.

    1. I’m so grateful the police officer was able to diffuse the situation for you. I wish, I wish, I wish that was a given, and that you didn’t have to hesitate before calling.

  14. Gabby, I am so, so grateful that you do not shy away from the hard topics and are willing to start these difficult discussions. These are the conversations that we must have as a society.

    I agree with everything people here are posting and am generally heartbroken over the situation.

    I think what we all need to do next is figure out how we will turn our sadness into action and change things. That is crucial.

    Thank you!

  15. Thank you so much for this post! After viewing the dashcam video I too searched for what to do next. Does anyone know of groups that are acting to reform police practices? I know CA has taken some steps to change the way police interact with the public but there needs to be more work done. I am so sick of feeling helpless and hopeless and want to find a way to prevent this kind of outcome from happening again.

  16. I highly recommend the documentary Peace Officer. It won the South by Southwest Film Festival and helped me to see how widespread this problem is.

  17. Last year my (white) sister married a black man. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in the East Bay Area and was essentially raised by the streets and a grandmother trying her best (his mother was on drugs, stepfather was abusive, etc.). He had every disadvantage.

    We’ve had really good discussions about his experiences and how they differed from ours (we grew up in a town with few black people). He said as a child he and everyone he knew were trained to put their hands up and out the car window when stopped by police. Police often wouldn’t show up if they called (they often didn’t bother calling).

    A couple years ago, he called police to report a domestic disturbance in their apartment building. When police arrived, they instantly tried to arrest my brother-in-law even though he was the one who called. My sister had to convince them that he was her husband and not the person they were reporting. Other times they’d call to report disturbances and the police would never show up at all.

    We watched the Philando Castile dashcam video together. I had seen it but he and my sister hadn’t yet. He was upset but not at all surprised (we were all upset). We also watched the video that’s been circulating in which parents are talking to their children about how to respond to police. Again, he said that’s what they were told growing up and it wasn’t new to him. I think about my future nieces and nephews and the conversations that they will have to have with them. It makes me sad.

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve always been (perhaps blindly) supportive of police but I also feel like my views have been evolving over the past few years. I can honestly say I’ve been trying to educate myself about what white privilege really means, and what racial bias social injustices look like for people of color in this country. I’m still learning. It takes humility to admit that racial bias exists (we all have it to varying degrees) and that police need to have some serious conversations about bias and training deficiencies. I feel that we all need more empathy. Those of us who haven’t experienced the same injustices need to sit down and listen to those who have. And speak up when we see things that aren’t right.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I especially appreciated the last paragraph. I fully agree that we all have racial bias (that we may not even recognize), and I too am still learning.

  18. Thank-you so much for talking about this. Gaby, I’ve loved watching you post more and more about issues facing this country and I hope that some of your more conservative readers can try and wrest with this as well and really, really, think about what ails this country instead of having a kneejerk reaction.

  19. I am a a white woman with a 2.5 year old biracial daughter. Her father has little contact with her, but he continually reminds me that although biracial, she will be seen and treated as black in our society, and that, as a white woman, I do not have the experience, understanding, etc. to fully teach her how to function in a America as a black person. I would be lying if I said that didn’t hurt, but I get it. I so get it!! The responsibility I have to guide my daughter through something I have zero direct experience in weighs heavily on me. I think a lot about what I am going to do when she starts to experience overt racism (because we know it’s when, not if), and so I turn to my friends of color, to books, to documentaries, and other resources for guidance.

    I recently read a book about raising black children and one of the segments was titled “Please stop calling the cops on black children” – referencing Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, the pool party of black teenagers in TX, etc. Another segment was a 5-step approach for teaching black children how to interact with police. That’s when it hit me, like really really hit me, the conversations I am going to have to have with my daughter. Not that I didn’t think I would have to, but to be honest, I felt that I wouldn’t have to have as serious of discussions as I would if she were a boy because black boys seem to be targeted much greater than black girls. While I realize that is true to an extent, I also realize black is black. She will have black friends, she will probably have black boyfriends, she will spend time in groups of black people. She will need to know how to protect herself, and that includes protecting herself from police.

    I am an older parent, turning 40, but when I was younger and imagined having a family, or watched my siblings with their children, I would think about how I would raise a child, what I would teach her, how would I have conversations about sex, and other sensitive issues, but this subject never ever crossed my mind. Why? Because of white privilege. I did not have to. But, I can guarantee this is something every person of color thinks about prior to having children, and that is a very sad reality. It should not be this way.

  20. I live in Minneapolis, not terribly far from where this horrific event happened. Last night, our city’s (St. Louis Park) Human Rights Commission hosted a community discussion to talk about how we’re feeling, to grieve, to share ideas and to discuss what each of us can personally do to make a difference. Too much was shared during this forum to discuss here, but I’d like to share one idea that another participant suggested—taking the implicit bias test. She had taken it a year ago and has spent the last year trying to get to know more people of color and understanding her own privilege and prejudice. She recently took it again and said she had improved a great deal. I plan to take the test as well. Here is the link: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

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